Cold closes Catholic schools, takes toll on homeless

Biting winds, sub-zero temperatures, wind chills reaching 40-below — New Englanders definitely had it hard last week.

The cold affected everyone.

Water mains throughout the state burst, unable to handle the frigid temperature. The water shuttle between Boston and the South Shore was halted due to unnavigable waters in Boston Harbor. Car batteries refused to start, causing record calls to AAA.

For the first time in decades, school was suspended — not because of snow or ice — but because of the deep freeze. Over 350 schools, including most Catholic schools around the archdiocese, opted to cancel school rather than force children to endure the cold.

"The potential danger to children walking to school or waiting at bus stops was too great," said Sister Kathleen Carr, Superintendent of Schools for the Archdiocese of Boston. "For the safety of the children, most principals chose to close schools and have an extra-long weekend."

Schoolchildren may have rejoiced over the Arctic chill, but the stretch of extraordinary cold took a particularly high toll on the most needy.

"Just the average cold of the winter is devastating for the homeless, but this weather is unsurvivabable if you're out there on the streets," said Vivian Soper, director of Greater Boston Catholic Charities in Dorchester.

In order to assist the homeless, St. Patrick Shelter in Boston “was taking in everyone we [could] accommodate,” said Soper, filling all the beds and cots the shelter owns every night for the past week. In addition, although the shelter usually opens only during the evenings, “we are not shutting our doors at any time during the day.”

According to Soper, shelters throughout Boston have been “overflowing” during the cold spell, pointing out that “there are fewer shelter beds than ever before.” In particular, there is a shortage of “detox beds,” Soper said, which has put “an added strain on shelters, emergency rooms and hospitals.”

The cold has also created an “influx of people” in the Catholic Charities Initial Response program — a program where people with any kinds of problems can ask Catholic Charities for help.

"We are seeing people on a much greater level than every before," said Soper. Many people are unable to pay their heating bills or are living in places with inadequate heat and are unable to cope with the cold, she said. In addition, several requests have been made for coats and other winter wear.

Soper said Catholic Charities is trying to help anyone who comes to their doors but she fears that “the cold stretch has put a huge strain on any kind of financial assistance we can offer.”