Gloucester's Zoning Board of Appeals has approved allowing the Action Inc. homeless 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 nonprofit organization applied for the new beds, the zoning board placed a condition on the extension, saying it would revisit the issue in a year.
Board members asked Action Inc. to return for another review next April, when they will see how the nonprofit addresses neighborhood concerns over the summer and winter. If it doesn't, they said, the shelter's bed limit will go back to the former bed count of 26.
Action first asked to expand the number of allowed beds to 34 in December, telling the board it required the eight beds to meet the needs of the city's growing homeless population. The shelter started turning people away at the door for lack of space as winter began.
"I'm not questioning the hard work," said board member Michael Nimon, "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 board's initial approval in December. While he said he supports the work Action does, it's the board's job to protect the neighborhood, Nimon added.
No one spoke in opposition to allowing the eight beds during the board meeting Thursday night.
The additional beds are necessary as more people find themselves homeless or becoming homeless, said the Rev. Tom Bentley, pastor at Trinity Congregational and part-time director of the Grace Center. The Grace Center, a place for homeless to go to during the day when Action is not open, has helped 85 different individuals since opening in December, he said, with around 20 regular guests.
"I'd hate to see those beds, needed now more than ever, be lost," Bentley said.
The expansion of Action's bed capacity has been one part of an effort by city nonprofit leaders to reach out and provide more services to the homeless.
The Grace Center opened a week or so after the Zoning Board of Appeals granted Action the first temporary permit. The center works as a hub of sorts, and tries to connect guests with services to help them get back on their feet.
It's open three days a week, from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. in the fellowship halls at Trinity Congregational, St. John's Episcopal, and the Unitarian Universalist Church on Middle Street.
The center, said Bentley, is still looking for a permanent home, and hopes to open at least six days a week next winter.
After Action received a six-month special permit for the additional beds, 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 shelter to form a line on the Main Street sidewalk to gain admittance. Shelter staff patrol the sidewalks to prevent a line as well. They have also conducted monthly meetings with neighbors to address concerns.
"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."
Steven Fletcher may be contacted at 1-978-283-7000 x3455, or email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at @stevengdt.