BY TOM DALTON
---- — 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).”
With so many people in the building, it was difficult to run programs for the people living in transitional or permanent housing who come for services, Cote said.
“It was mayhem, absolute mayhem,” he said.
There are also public safety and health concerns, he said. The state health code, for example, does not allow areas where food is served to be used as sleeping rooms, according to Health Agent Larry Ramdin.
Cote said he has talked with city officials and police about the changes. He also has let them know that in emergencies, Lifebridge will take temporary measures to ensure public safety.
“We will continue to work with the (Police Department’s) Community Impact Unit and the Police Department to work with anybody at risk in the winter,” Cote said.
On extremely cold nights, Salem police will follow their past practice of visiting homeless camps and, in emergencies, bringing people to the shelter, according to police Chief Paul Tucker.
“I can’t emphasize enough the relationship we have with Mark Cote and his staff,” said Tucker. “They have been very good partners with us.” He noted that one of his officers, Sgt. Harry Rocheville, is on the Lifebridge board.
“They’re in the business of taking care of people, as we are, and we’re not going to put anybody at risk,” Tucker said.
Nevertheless, it appears fewer homeless will find temporary shelter at Lifebridge this winter.
Lifebridge’s board decided to end its open-door policy after a lengthy discussion, according to Lynda Fairbanks Atkins, the board president. Asked if the vote was unanimous, she said: “The board is behind this move.”
She stressed that Lifebridge will continue to work with outside agencies to make sure nobody is put at risk. “It’s never our desire to have anyone left out on a cold and freezing night, and we don’t intend to do that,” she said.
But Atkins said they do intend to enforce the new policy.
“The primary concern we have is supporting the health and well-being of the people we work with who are working very hard to end their homelessness,” she said. “And over-crowded conditions and having people who may not observe the rules of the shelter, which are pretty stringent, can cause difficulty for the people who are here.”
Cote said this change in policy is another reflection that Lifebridge has really changed its mission from a homeless shelter to a housing and service program.
In fact, he does not call the facility a “homeless shelter,” and instead says they offer “transitional beds” in a basement dormitory. They also have 22 apartments for “permanent” housing in adjacent buildings.
Lifebridge is focused on ending homelessness, he said, which means working with people who are sober and have case workers and service plans. The goal, he said, is to get people back on their feet and into jobs and housing.
The issue of homelessness, he also noted, is regional — not just a Salem problem.
Yet the winter overflow of homeless people at Lifebridge comes from Salem and beyond.
“We have a large homeless population, especially for dinner, and I know they used to walk over (to Lifebridge) when it was really cold,” said Alyse Barbash, executive director of Haven From Hunger, a Peabody food program.
Since Peabody has no shelter, Haven from Hunger does what it can, Barbash said. “What we try to do,” she said, “is make sure we have lots of coats, blankets and socks that will keep them warm.”
The only other local homeless shelters are in Beverly, Gloucester and Lynn. Of those, only Lynn regularly accepts additional homeless on cold nights. Except in dire emergencies, the others stick to the numbers on their occupancy permits.
Heading into winter, all the city shelters have something in common: few or no empty beds.
“We are full,” said Kate Benashski, executive director of River House, a 34-bed shelter in Beverly. “We’ve been full (for a while), which is uncommon for this time of year. ... There just aren’t enough shelter beds right now to accommodate the number of people seeking shelter. ...
“It’s going to be a rough winter, that’s for sure.”
Tom Dalton can be reached at email@example.com.