The doors to the shelter open at 5 p.m.
At 4, people form a line up the lower Main Street sidewalk, each one counting, hoping they're not No. 31 — and that they won't hear, "Sorry, we don't have a bed."
Action Inc.'s shelter on Main Street sleeps 30, and that's pushing it. The growing number of local homeless pressed the non-profit to go beyond its zoned occupancy limit, 26. People who slide in under the limit have a bed for the night. If they don't, they fend for themselves. Without an open shelter, that's often a friend's apartment but just as often a doorway or the woods of Dogtown.
Working to get out
Mike Hillier knows what that's like. He's taken refuge behind buildings, in the woods, and in boats. Hillier and his fiancee, Janet Gately, fell into the shelter a few months ago, after he lost his job as a machinist in Haverhill.
Hillier, who grew up in Gloucester, said he started fishing again to work his way out. But he and Gately are staying in the shelter until they can pull enough money together for an apartment.
Winter's on its way now. And Hillier and Gately started a petition asking anyone and everyone to support some kind of solution for people who don't make it inside. He doesn't want people freezing to death in the winter. And any help is worth it, he said.
"Even if we get one (more) person in here," said Hillier.
Gloucester's homeless shelter is the end of the line as shelters go. The closest one is a men's only building in Beverly. Those shelters, said Timothy Riley, Action's executive director, are just as full as the one on Main Street.
Requesting more beds
Riley said Action is going before the city's Zoning Board on Thursday, asking permission to increase the number of beds in the shelter.
The agency is allowed 26 under current zoning, and Action will ask to add eight beds to raise the limit to 34. Action officials are not looking to expand the physical plant of the shelter, Riley emphasized.
Riley said those beds will meet much of the new demand. The nonprofit capped the shelter's count at 30 a few months ago and has seen that number every night since.
Last week, he said, the shelter saw between 30 and 35 people a night, and turned away one person four times. Now that it's December, turning away even a person is a worry, Riley said.
"If we have to remain at 26 then that's going to be a real problem trying to keep people safe," he said.
Since the shelter opened in the late 1980s, Riley said it has never dealt with this kind of demand. He said the economy's part of the problem. It's difficult to find work, he said, and that's drawn a new crowd to the shelter.
Ralph Johnson, who runs the shelter, said people coming in for help with substance abuse or the long-term homeless don't make up much of the shelter's population. He's seeing younger people, ages 18 to 25 — a demographic that didn't use the building much in the past, he said.
Older men and women are coming in as well. Most, he said, have lost their job or their homes, or both.
Johnson said the shelter's population normally grows in the wintertime. This year, he said, it didn't abate in the summer, but instead continued growing.
Action housed upward of 35 people in the late summer months, before the amount of people in the building threatened fire code, Riley said.
Riley said they had some people sleeping in the cafeteria. After that, said Riley, the shelter cut back to 30 people, and has filled each of its rooms to capacity with bunk beds. It will add more if the zoning variance gets approved Thursday, he said.
Last week, the shelter turned four people away, and in the last month, it's had to turned up to 10 people away in a night.
Riley said the drop comes as people within the shelter have found permanent housing, or those who know they can't make it back on time, are making their own arrangements.
Molly Derr, the shelter counselor, said those people are playing a one-down game. When people are turned away, she said, they're left with a handful of options. Sleep in the woods, break into a building to get out of the weather, or do something unsafe or unsavory to find a place.
"We're very worried they're putting themselves in danger," she said.
End of the line
Some of the people coming to the shelter, she said, need more than just food and a roof. With social services across the state and nation retracting, the shelter has become a place of last resort for people, not only with drug or alcohol problems, but victims of domestic violence and people with mental disabilities.
Gloucester's shelter, she said, is at the end of the line. Boston shelters might be the only places that have room, and the people who need to go there either don't have the money, or don't know the way.
Though the shelter has its problems — police respond there a few times each week, or pick up people on the streets — Police Chief Mike Lane said there has to be a place for them. Jail or the police department's holding cells aren't the place to house people, Lane said.
Jim Noble, shelter manager, added another variable. While more people are coming into the shelter, he said, fewer can get out into permanent housing.
There are roughly 80,000 people on state's Section 8 subsidized housing wait list, each waiting about five years for a traveling Section 8 voucher. Some people, such as Hillier, are ready to take the next step, but can't afford rent in town. The system, said Johnson, has backed up.
"When it bottlenecks, the shelter is the place that's most effected," he said.
Section 8 vouchers, he said, are hard to come by. Over the last year, Johnson said, he's seen only a handful of residents receive one.
Section 8 comes in two flavors — either for affordable housing projects, such as the four apartment units in the back of the Action shelter, or traveling vouchers. Those vouchers move with the tenant and, cover 60 percent or 70 percent of the rent, according to the state Department of Housing and Community Development. The homeless have preference in that program.
"It's about a five-year wait to get Section 8 assistance,' said David Houlden, director of the Gloucester Housing Authority.
The authority manages all of Gloucester's public housing — 1,315 units, 72 of those set aside for the homeless. And there are no vacancies at the moment.
Houlden expects that four to eight of those units will open up next year. He said the authority tries to work with Action to place people when it has openings. But roughly 10 percent of Gloucester households on the Section 8 list receive a voucher each year.
State figures show that just roughly 8 percent of the city's housing stock is deemed affordable, and with the current fiscal climate, Houlden expects there to be less of it in the future, despite a 10 percent guideline set by the state.
"This should be about low income housing," said Janet Gately.
But, for right now, Gately said, she's still looking for work.
She and Hillier hope to save up enough money to stand up on their own feet again. They have saved beds at the shelter because they're looking for a way out. But that's not the case for everyone. Both say the city, or Action, need to look at some new space to handle the overflow.
But with all shelters now pressed for space, Noble said that even the 34 beds that Action is now requesting might not fix the problem.
"There's going to be a time," he said, "when you're still turning people away."
Steven Fletcher may be contacted at 1-978-283-7000 x3455, or email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at @stevengdt.