SALEM — For the past few weeks, a sign has been posted on the door of Lifebridge’s headquarters on Margin Street: “Attention — Winter Protocol Will No Longer Be Offered.”
Beginning Nov. 15, the former Salem Mission will stop accepting the overflow of homeless people who typically fill the building on cold nights.
Lifebridge’s board voted last spring to end its longstanding open-door policy. Officials said they started spreading the word to the city’s homeless population several months ago.
The nonprofit organization, as in past years, will expand the number of shelter beds from 34 to 52 for the winter term, which runs from Nov. 15 to April 15. Thus, the homeless shelter, or transitional housing part of its operation, will remain unchanged.
However, Lifebridge is ending the “winter protocol” of taking in homeless individuals who show up at their door once the temperature falls below 40 degrees, and allowing them to sit in a chair or at a dining room table through the night. On some nights, it can run to two dozen or more overnight guests, an official said.
Over the years, the number of people seeking emergency shelter for a night has grown so large that it started to adversely impact clients, staff and programs, according to Mark Cote, executive director of Lifebridge.
“We would allow people into this building who, typically, we would not allow in,” he said.
Lifebridge requires men and women living in its shelter to be sober, and even does drug testing and administers Breathalyzer tests. They also must be “engaged,” Cote said, meaning they must do chores, work with case managers on a service plan, and follow up with programs and other services toward a goal of securing housing and getting back on their feet.
On cold winter nights, Lifebridge’s population soars.
“Our numbers (of emergency guests) went to like 25 and 30,” said Cote. “I’d walk in in the morning and our dining room would be fully packed. It really got to the point where it’s beating up my staff, it’s beating up (the facility).”