On a recent chilly January morning, a dozen or so people sat in folding chairs, spaced in a wide circle inside Waltham’s First Parish church.

They’d gathered for a weekly leadership meeting hosted by Chaplains on the Way, a small interfaith nonprofit group focused on assisting and “walking with” Waltham residents experiencing homelessness.

Leading the meeting was Patrick McCarthy, who — like most attending this meeting — is currently homeless.

The group has been meeting like this since the summer and has, over the course of those months, helped put together a coalition of Waltham residents — housed and un-housed, they like to say — who have prodded, cajoled and pushed their city and community institutions to better respond to the needs of people experiencing homelessness in this time of crisis.

COVID-19 has put enormous pressure on the patchwork of safety nets for those facing homelessness in Massachusetts, but it has also prodded some communities to step up and innovate around needs that have long existed, were made worse, or simply exposed, by the pandemic.

Patrick McCarthy stands at the door of the First Parish Church in Waltham, Mass. on January 27, 2021.
Meredith Nierman GBH News

When shutdown measures went into effect last spring, McCarthy, like others experiencing homelessness, could not follow state guidance to ‘shelter at home,’ because he didn’t have one.

Nor could he easily maintain physical separation while staying in a congregate, dorm-like setting, like the Bristol Lodge; early in the pandemic, infection rates at some congregate shelters rose as high as 30%, although they have plummeted since shelters de-populated and introduced new safety measures.

And when overnight shelters closed during the day, McCarthy and other guests found that many of the other services they relied on had vanished.

“The libraries shut down; the day center that we used to go to in the afternoon shut down; the restaurants closed,” McCarthy recalls. “So we really had no place to go.”

Chaplains on the Way began hosting weekly meetings, inviting those currently “un-housed,” to organize and strategize around trying to solve some of those problems.

Remote meetings weren’t generally feasible, chaplain Justi Godoy recalls, so they’d gather in a church parking lot.

“We got a bunch of those kind of beach lounge chairs and we’d make a circle six feet apart in the parking lot, in the shade somewhere and have our meetings there,” Godoy says.

McCarthy was an early attendee.

“I said, "Listen, there’s two things we need right now: We need a physical place to go in the afternoons, and we need bathrooms — porta potties.'”

The group sent a letter to Waltham Mayor Jeanette McCarthy, asking for outdoor toilets to be cleaned and serviced regularly and to meet to discuss options for indoor spaces where people could be safe and warm during the day.

And it worked.

Portable toilets sit outside of the Waltham Public Library in Waltham, Mass., on January 27, 2021.
Meredith Nierman GBH News

The city installed two outdoor toilets beside the library. “It’s huge,” said Patrick McCarthy.

The group helped convince the city to fund weekend hours at the nearby Community Day Center; and this fall, the Bristol Lodge men’s shelter announced it would stay open all day throughout the winter.

Waltham isn’t the only community that has responded to demands by advocates and people experiencing homelessness for more and better services that go beyond basic shelter.

And some of those communities are finding creative solutions.

In Brockton, the city’s main shelter provider commandeered a YMCA to house people at the peak of infections, and is now converting a hotel into permanent housing.

In Cambridge city officials recently signed off on a new shelter site, overseen by state officials, and agreed to fund the city’s first 24-hour warming station.

Jim Stewart runs the First Church shelter in Harvard Square, and says those changes came because the community stood up for itself.

“It’s not very compelling just to have some loud-mouthed activist provider like myself saying you gotta do this, you gotta do that,” Stewart said. “First and foremost, it’s a recognition of needs that these poor and homeless people identified for themselves.”

The COVID-19 crisis has, in some cases, opened doors to state services for people who were qualified but not enrolled, says Keith Wales, homeless outreach director for Elliot Community Human Services, which contracts with the state to enroll people.

Before the coronavirus, Wales says, he spent much of his time simply trying to find the people his organization serves.

But state quarantine sites, especially for people who would otherwise be homeless, have created gathering spots where Wales and his team have been able to locate and enroll hundreds more clients in state mental health, counseling and housing programs.

“We have an opportunity to engage these folks that wind up at these sites secondary to their COVID diagnosis,” Wales said.

Justi Godoy (l) and Becky Sheble-Hall (r) stand inside the First Parish Church in Waltham, Mass. on January 27, 2021. Godoy and Sheble-Hall are Chaplains who started The Coalition for Unhoused Waltham.
Meredith Nierman GBH News

Patrick McCarthy and the others at the leadership meeting in Waltham are moving on to their next challenge: securing MBTA passes that could be shared among anyone homeless in Waltham.

All share the goal, but an awkward tension arises as they discuss who, exactly, would be responsible for making sure a limited number of MBTA passes were being returned and shared equitably.

To McCarthy, the answer seems clear: The chaplains should hold the cards, he says, because it will be harder for the homeless participants to keep track of them.

But the chaplains push back. They take very seriously the idea that it should be those experiencing homelessness leading the group, and they don’t want to be seen as being “in charge” of anything, including the T passes.

Eventually, the group decides to table the issue, especially since they haven’t actually secured any passes yet, or figured out how they’d pay for them.

It’s difficult work, fighting for services from the ground up, but the group is proud of what they’ve achieved so far. It’s slow progress — but it’s theirs.