By Steven Fletcher
Gloucester's Zoning Board of Appeals has approved allowing the Action Inc. Shelter on Main Street to continue to maintain the eight additional beds it has been using on a trial basis since December.
But, for the second time since the non-profit applied for the new beds, the ZBA also put a condition on the extension, saying it would revisit the issue in a year.
Board members asked Action Inc. to come back for a review next April, when it will assess how the nonprofit continues to address neighborhood concerns over the summer. If that proves otherwise, the shelter's bed limit goes back to the former count — and homeless residency limit — of 26.
Action first asked to expand the number of allowed beds to 34 in December, telling the board to approve eight beds to meet the needs of the city's growing homeless population.
"I'm not questioning the hard work," said Michael Nimon, board member, "But, with all due respect, I believe we as a board forced some changes and I would like to see them get fully ingrained."
Nimon and other board members said the Shelter staff has done good work in the wake of the ZBA's initial approval in December. While he said he supports the work Action does, it's the ZBA's job to protect the neighborhood, he added.
No one spoke in opposition to extending the eight-bed expansion during the ZBA meeting Thursday night .
The additional beds are necessary as more people find themselves heading toward homelessness, said Rev. Tom Bentley, pastor at Trinity Congregational and part-time director of the Grace Center. The center, he said, has helped 85 different individuals since opening in December, with around 20 regular guests.
"I'd hate to see those beds, needed now more than ever, be lost," Bentley said.
After Action received a six-month special permit for additional beds, covering from December through May, the agency carried out a series of changes in how it operates the shelter.
For one thing, the nonprofit shifted from a first-come, first-serve system to a save bed system. Since the vote, shelter staff have increased the number of saved beds, beds for guests on a "moving on" program, from 15 to 30.
They operate four cots as emergency beds as well; the change has eased the need for those seeking nightly shelter to form a line on the Main Street sidewalk to gain admittance.
"Action provides an important service (with the shelter)," said Ward 1 City Councilor, Paul McGeary. "It's important, especially in difficult times, that we have a place for those down on their luck."
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Steven Fletcher may be contacted at 1-978-283-7000 x3455, or email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at @stevengdt.