By James Niedzinski
---- — While the temperature has been creeping upward, city officials and several advocates for the homeless have come together to take new steps toward addressing Gloucester’s and Cape Ann’s growing homeless population and aiding others in need.
Members of the City Council, Action Inc. — which runs Gloucester’s homeless shelter — the Salvation Army, The Grace Center and others have set up an overflow homeless shelter to go beyond the 34 beds Action Inc. already provides.
The goal is simple: When the temperature hovers near or below freezing and could be fatal to anyone sleeping outside, people will now have a place to stay, as a motel owner in the city has agreed to house some homeless people in the winter. The Salvation Army has awarded a grant to Action Inc., up to $5,000, to fund the voucher program.
The program will not simply accept anyone who comes along, Tim Riley, the executive director of Action Inc., said Tuesday. Action’s own emergency shelter on Main Street holds 34 beds, but only those who follow the rules and safety guidelines are allowed to stay. In addition, those at the shelter must be able to document that they are working toward getting a job or housing somewhere else.
Riley said the voucher program for an inn or motel would operate under similar rules. Mike Skoog, a senior field representative with the Salvation Army’s service extension program, said that one Gloucester inn has signed to participate; organizers did not identify the motel or inn during interviews Tuesday.
“It just didn’t seem to make sense to have anyone that shows up at the shelter (and) send them to a hotel,” Riley said. At the same time, he added, “It’s a winter problem, it’s something really to keep people from being out on the street and freezing to death.”
The growing issue of homelessness has burst into the spotlight a number of times in recent months — particularly for families, which cannot be housed together at Action. The only family-based transitional housing on Cape Ann is an apartment facility owned and run by Wellspring House, which otherwise provides a number of educational and job training programs.
In November, police were alerted to a tent in Dogtown, where a family had apparently been living. Responding officers recovered clothes, sleeping bags, food, a cooler — as well as diapers and baby formula — after a night of sub-freezing temperatures. That family was located in Salem and later reported safe.
Then, in February, police responded to a call of suspicious activity at the Fitz Henry Lane House on Harbor Loop. They found three people sleeping outside, despite 10-degree temperatures at the time. All three, it turned out, had been banned from the homeless shelter.
While police arranged for those people to be housed at the Gloucester Police Station and courthouse building on Main Street, advocates worked toward a more long-term solution.
Under certain parameters, a shelter can be put in place when people are turned away, said Mike Skoog, a senior field representative with the Salvation Army’s service extension program.
The funds will be awarded at will; for example, should the Action Shelter only need $1,500 to fund the program, that is all that will be provided. But, Skoog said, the program could continue in the years to come.
“I would be relatively confident it’s a program that would stick around,” he said.
He added this would also serve to test the waters of the program and get a sense of whether more or less money could be needed down the line. If the needs are greater, the Salvation Army could examine the issue from a fundraising standpoint, as well.
“We know Gloucester is an area to which we want to be providing some services,” Skoog said. “We just really want to help where we can,” he added.
The program is set to run from Nov. 1 through next April 1, targeting those people who need shelter during severe weather events.
City Councilor and Salvation Army volunteer Sefatia Romeo Theken said that she and others had been working to aid the homeless in a variety of ways before the February incident, such as providing blankets to the homeless.
“We’re trying to make sure nobody is without anything,” she said Tuesday.
City Council President Paul McGeary said that considering the winter has essentially ended, the issue of dire need may not come up again for some time.
Riley said the number of people who have to be turned away from the Action shelter fluctuates from month to month, but he estimated that his agency turned down people more than 100 times last year because the 34-bed facility was at full capacity. Last week, he said, 38 people were seeking a place to stay — meaning that four of them had to find shelter elsewhere.
”It’s uncomfortable to say ‘no’ and send someone out into the cold,” he said.
The Rev. Tom Bentley of Trinity Congregational Church and executive director of The Grace Center — a roving daytime shelter and resource center for homeless in the city — commended Action Inc, Theken and McGeary, the Salvation Army and others for their effort.
“Our plan is to keep people off the streets, even if the shelter is full,” he said.
James Niedzinski can be reached at 978-675-2708 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.