The staff at Action Inc.'s shelter won't be turning away as many people looking for a bed, at least for the winter months.
The nonprofit agency's request for eight more beds at the Main Street shelter was granted by the Zoning Board of Appeals on Thursday night, raising the shelter's city-approved limit from 26 to 34.
But the city board's approval came with strings attached. Board members OK'd the additional beds only until April, when they'll examine whether Action has addressed neighborhood concerns over the winter. If not, the shelter's bed limit will go back the old count, board member Virginia Bergmann indicated Friday.
"Hopefully tonight we won't be turning away anybody," Molly Derr, counselor at the shelter, said Friday. "I can't help but feel good about that."
Zoning Board members approved the beds after Action presented a plan to deal with neighborhood concerns.
At the board's first hearing two weeks ago, neighbors asked Action to keep guests from loitering in front of their businesses and homes, keep the area free of bottles and trash, and to do away with the line that forms in front of the shelter every day at 4:30 p.m.
That line forms as guests rush to find a bed for the night, with the shelter opening at 5. The growing number of local homeless pushed the shelter to its zoned limits, and it's been full every night for the last few months, and those who didn't make the cutoff were turned away with few options.
While that line has caused some trouble for neighbors, Ralph Johnson, the shelter director, said Action has a plan to address it.
Beginning Friday, Action's shelter started moving toward a "saved bed" system — in which a guest will have a "saved bed" when he or she starts on a program geared at getting them out of the shelter and back on their feet.
As long as they are meeting that program's standards, those people will be assured by Action of having a place to sleep.
Johnson said Action is going to phase this program in over the next few months, and adding five saved beds each month, with a cap of 30. The four remaining beds will be open for emergencies.
The plan, he said, will keep guests moving out of the shelter and eventually eliminate the need for the lineup.
"My hope is that, by the end of the year we won't need that may beds, because we'll be moving (guests) out fast enough," he said.
As the shelter switches over to the saved bed system, guests will line up inside the shelter, rather than along the sidewalk. Action, according to a letter sent to the neighbors, will charge one staff member with keeping people from loitering on the street. That staff member is also tasked with keeping the sidewalk free of trash.
Action is also limiting smoking outside the shelter to two guests at a time, rather than four, after neighbors complained that crowds gathering on the shelter porch were making a lot of noise during the evenings.
Shelter staff will also meet with neighbors monthly, with the shelter's Jim Nobel and George Allen, who owns the Gloucester Service Center next door, to meet regularly as well. The board asked Allen to work as a liaison for the neighbors.
Though Action has put together a plan, board members and neighbors say the proof's in the pudding.
"Whatever system you propose has to work," said Robert Stewart.
Elizabeth Chiasson, who lives at 384 Main St., told the Zoning Board that, while Action's mission is a good thing, the organization needs to take care of neighborhood concerns, including the crowds often loiter in front of her building.
"We have heard a lot of good words," Chiasson said, "but we need action."
Steven Fletcher may be contacted at 1-978-283-7000 x3455, or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @stevengdt.