One of the only overnight women’s homeless shelters in Worcester is closing.
The Safe Exit Initiative, formerly known as Living in Freedom Together, is a nonprofit that works to assist survivors of the sex trade. Since 2021, it has operated a 16-bed emergency overnight shelter called Harbor for women experiencing sexual exploitation, homelessness and substance-use disorders.
The shelter has relied on funding from the city of Worcester and other donors, but Harbor's staff say those financing streams have dried up and there is no longer enough money to run the shelter. Sunday was the center’s last night in operation.
Unlike other overnight shelters for women, which mandate that guests be sober while on the premises, Harbor accepted people still intoxicated or under the influence.
“This was an extremely difficult decision. It’s heartbreaking,” said Audra Doody, co-executive director of The Safe Exit Initiative. “We’re going to continue to support these women.”
Doody said Harbor's closure will not result in cuts to their other services and programs.
The nonprofit will keep operating its drop-in center, which provides food, case management and other survivor healthcare services. She said staff are working with other overnight homeless and treatment shelters in Worcester to make sure they’ll accept women who’ve been relying on Harbor. The Safe Exit Initiative will also continue to run Jana’s Place, a separate recovery home for women exiting prostitution.
The closure of the overnight shelter comes after The Safe Exit Initiative’s founder and longtime CEO, Nicole Bell, left the nonprofit earlier this year. Bell started the organization in 2014 based on her own experiences as a survivor of prostitution and substance abuse.
Over the years, the nonprofit grew into a preeminent center committed to ending the sex trade. Doody said The Safe Exit Initiative serves about 900 women annually, at least 120 of which were also served at Harbor.
Advocates called the closure a significant loss at a time when homelessness is on the rise.
“This is horrible news just thinking about what people who were staying in that shelter were already going through everyday in terms of what they were surviving and attempting to process,” said Worcester community organizer Addison Turner. “It’s hard to think sometimes of how things can get worse, and then they do.”
Doody said the Harbor program previously benefited from funding from the city of Worcester. She said she did not have exact figures on hand, but said the city's funding was a significant part of the program's $1.1 million annual budget.
However, city officials wanted Harbor to meet certain requirements in order to continue receiving money, Doody said. Such requirements, which can be common when receiving public money, were unrealistic for the type of services Harbor provided, she said.
Those conditions included proof that women who rely on the shelter are showing improvement in their recovery from substance abuse and prostitution. But progress like that doesn’t always happen on a set schedule, she said.
“It was ridiculous reporting requirements that were not feasible for our shelter guests,” Doody said. “How can you have a cookie-cutter approach when I believe in a person-centered approach?”
The city of Worcester did not provide comment by publication time.
Maydee Morales, a resilience director with the Worcester Community Action Council, noted that Massachusetts’ second-largest city already lacks enough beds and safe spaces for people suffering from homelessness and addiction. The loss of the Harbor program will compound the problem, she said.
“It makes me very sad that we’re losing some overnight beds for our most vulnerable population in Worcester, especially women,” Morales said. “We need to figure out how to all come together and provide housing first services for people.”