LAWRENCE — When the coronavirus crisis hit the Merrimack Valley, the Lazarus House shelter was among the organizations forced to shut down for for several months.
Many services went remote. Its thrift store closed.
"People forgot about us," said Almarie Silverman, director of advocacy at Lazarus House.
Now, however, the emergency shelter on Holly Street is back up and running, thanks to the hard work of Silverman and an army of Lazarus House volunteers.
This month, the residence opened its doors to welcome people in need of housing, and they were offered new family-style suites. The space is a departure from the traditional form of shelter previously offered by Lazarus House, which welcomed single men, individuals and families prior to the coronavirus crisis.
"It's a big transition for us. For 35 years, we really accommodated everyone under this roof, and now we've changed due to COVID," Silverman said. "If we're forward-thinking and thinking about avoiding having to shut down again, this will be a permanent model."
Gone are the shared bathrooms, family-style meals and community lounge areas the shelter once had, but the new space is just as cozy and welcoming — a priority for the Lazarus House staff.
"The philosophy before was to take advantage of every inch possible so you don't leave anyone behind, but in reality, you do. You can only fit so many people in here," Silverman said. "The goal here is comfort, because during this time, being isolated is stressful. You can't just be in a bedroom 24/7, so we want to create spaces families want to be in. Our families now have an entire living space that is multi-functional and can serve as a classroom and if they need to isolate, they can do that."
Lazarus House staff are in regular contact with the Lawrence public schools and Superintendent Cynthia Paris so the needs of any students living at Lazarus House are taken care of, Silverman said.
"We talked to the superintendent and she told us how important it was to make it a space where kids want to learn and are comfortable, so we have bean bags (in the living rooms). They can wear their PJs if they want," Silverman explained, adding that each family suite comes complete with a Google Chrome book and Samsung tablet for families to use.
Meal times and snack breaks line up with the school system's schedule so families with children can be accommodated with ease. When school's out, the Lazarus House staff has a plan for that, too.
"The Knights of Columbus painted a hopscotch outside for us and we'll have other activities for the kids timed to their school recess," Silverman said.
Each suite can accommodate up to five people and has its own bathroom. Laundry is done on site by Lazarus House staff. The typical length of stay is six months, according to Silverman.
"Our goal is really for them to work to success," she said of residents.
Health and safety remains paramount for both residents and staff, with everyone completing a full health evaluation and COVID screening prior to entering the shelter. Typically, residents call the shelter directly to be admitted or are referred by another agency.
Program Director Carmen Vega can't wait to welcome residents into the new and improved family shelter.
"We love what we made here," she said. "When we talk about dignity and respect, it's like, 'Wow, what a way to love on our families here.'"