Doors open at Brook Street Women’s Shelter, a ‘place for transformation’

There are 16 beds to fill right away - and the potential for 6 more once the day-to-day operations hit their stride.

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Community members who have helped in some capacity to get the Brook Street Women’s Shelter up and running gathered Monday for the official opening. Photo/Carol Robidoux

MANCHESTER, NH –There is a moral to the old “Stone Soup” fable that goes something like this: Small contributions add up to something substantial.

During Monday’s official opening of the Brook Street Women’s Shelter, YWCA CEO Jessica Cantin mentioned the stone soup story in the context of what has happened in just a few short weeks, as 16 beds are now available for women experiencing chronic homelessness.

“This house is a testament to what we can do as a community. I think back to that old story about the stone soup, where everybody brings something and then eventually it’s like this really great stew and it feeds the whole village,” Cantin says. She enumerates some of the gestures of kindness she’s witnessed in the past three weeks: a batch of towels here, a U-haul full of furniture there. People willing to paint, to organize supplies, to build beds. The collaboration from the community allowed the YWCA to hit its target date of Feb. 6 for opening.

The shelter, formerly known as Tirrell House, is state-owned and was operated by Families in Transition as a sober house for men. FIT gave up the lease last fall and the house sat vacant. In January Cantin got a call from Mayor Joyce Craig asking if the YWCA could help them come up with some alternative solutions to the need for shelter for the many unhoused. Cantin led with “yes,” and soon made the decision to take on the daily operation of the shelter. It will be open 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Brook Street Women's Shelter
For the next two years the Brook Street Women’s Shelter will be operated under the direction of the YWCA in partnership with the city. Photo/Carol Robidoux

The initial lease period is for two years.

“For now, due to funding restraints, this is a pop-up shelter, although we’re hoping with continued support and funding from the community we can make it permanent,” Cantin says. She added that if the YW is to continue operating the shelter after that time they would have to address the issue of accessibility for the bedrooms on the upper two floors which are currently only accessible via stairs.

The brief ceremony marking the opening was attended by Mayor Joyce Craig, Fire Chief Ryan Cashin, Director of Homeless Initiatives Adrienne Beloin and many other community members and supporters, including Dr. Adrian Haugabrook of Southern New Hampshire University, who announced a $50,000 grant in support of the shelter.

“This is truly what we call transformative partnerships, which are about solving issues in a way that’s collective, and is about impact. And the impact is both the immediate needs as well as the long-term needs, and what the difference is that it actually makes,” Haugabrook said. “And this is the difference that it makes. And so here we stand [opening this shelter] today to unhoused women in this community and doing so in a way that is dignified, in a way that is transformative,  in a way that really builds on the capacity of partnerships in this community.”

He said he was particularly drawn to the dining room table for what it represented symbolically.

“It struck me in a way that was profound in that, you could see people communing together around a meal in a very dignified way. This is sort of what I see as the representation of community when you can come to the table and have a place to sit and to eat and to convene and to enjoy with one another. This, in my view, is central to the soul of community,” Haugabrook said.

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A wall hanging in the dining area reads: “Don’t compare your life to others. There’s no comparison between the sun and the moon. They shine when it’s their time.” Photo/Carol Robidoux

Beloin, who has also been involved in setting up a low-barrier shelter on Beech Street with 40 beds, praised the YWCA for its unique work around the needs of all women, especially those in crisis.

“We couldn’t be more thrilled, especially because working with you guys at the YWCA is providing an extra opportunity for an emergency shelter, and the reason for that is you guys are experts in the field of trauma and the field of domestic violence and the field of supporting women in all the ways women need to be supported,” said Beloin. “We know this is going to be an amazing environment for people to thrive in, and we can’t believe we’re pulling it off. It’s been an amazing effort.”

The shelter will provide a “safe space where women will receive case management and trauma-informed programming aimed at addressing the issues causing the chronic homelessness for the women, while providing tools necessary to help break the cycle. Cantin said once the newness of the operation wears off and they hit their stride, they should be able to increase to full capacity of 22 beds.

“We’re hoping for referrals,” says Emerald Anderson-Ford, the YW’s Chief Diversity Officer, who expects that other partners, including Families in Transition and the Manchester Mental Health Center – located directly across the street – may help identify women in need of a bed. There is no prescripted length of stay, Anderson-Ford said.

The shelter will be staffed at all times by at least two people across three shifts.

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Director of Homeless Initiatives, Adrienne Beloin, chats with Manchester Deputy Fire Chief Dave Fleury outside the “Zen Room.” Photo/Carol Robidoux

“We’re really intentional about ensuring the safety of not only our staff but our guests here so we want to make sure there’s always going to be two people, which has been a really fun puzzle to figure out with our existing staff and hiring some other folks,” Anderson-Ford said.

Jen Drociak lives nearby and came over Monday to welcome her new neighbors. Standing on the second-floor landing, Drociak said she was impressed with all she had seen.

“This is just amazing. What an opportunity for women to get back on their feet and turn their lives around. I’m excited and looking into volunteer opportunities,” Drociak says, adding that she hoped others would take advantage of the offer of tours. “Touring places like this and meeting staff can take away the fear of the unknown and the stigma someone may have.”

The bedrooms are simply decorated with single beds, end tables, lamps and an under-bed locker for belongings. Community spaces include a living room, kitchen, dining room and “Zen Room,” for quiet time. There is also an office.

Below: Photo Gallery by Carol Robidoux

Three meals a day will be provided for now by the NH Food Bank until the YW gets its license from the city to operate the commercial kitchen.

“We’re in the process of getting a license but we need a commercial refrigerator first,” Cantin said. One option will be to buy one with some of the grant money from SNHU. “Or if there is a restaurant group or food service group out there that has one laying around that’s operational, that would be great.” Although receiving meals from the Food Bank might be more economical, Cantin said there is a certain element to being able to cook in the house that will allow for them to respond more to people’s dietary needs.

Anderson-Ford says in terms of items they may need going forward, people interested in donating might consider new twin-size linens and pillows, new women’s leisurewear, and snacks. Items can be dropped off at the shelter at 15-17 Brook Street, or at the YW’s main office at 72 Concord St.

She said that there is something “special and magical” about this place, and its history as a place of healing. Six months ago she could not have imagined the way in which the YWCA has been able to answer the call and help meet a visible and tangible need within the community.

“My heart is very full today. I’m happy this has all turned out the way that it has and I’m very thankful and grateful for all of our community partners that have been able to be a part of this. It has been a labor of love,” Anderson-Ford says.

“You feel transformation happening in these walls and we know that’s what’s going to happen moving foward. It was easy for us to add on to this good energy with our love and cleaning and sprucing up,” she adds. “Hopefully, that continues to be how it feels here for our guests.”


About this Author

Carol Robidoux

PublisherManchester Ink Link

Longtime NH journalist and publisher of Loves R&B, German beer, and the Queen City!