BEVERLY — Faced with increasing financial problems, the River House emergency homeless shelter plans to close temporarily on April 30 and reopen in the fall under new management.
Harborlight Community Partners, a Beverly-based affordable-housing agency, will become the shelter's new overseer, replacing North Shore Community Action Programs.
Harborlight Executive Director Andrew DeFranza said Harborlight has agreed to manage River House for three years to get the shelter on firm-enough financial footing to operate on its own.
"The idea is for them to be self-sufficient," DeFranza said.
River House opened in 2005 in a renovated, 19th-century firehouse on River Street near the train depot, but it has struggled to stay open in recent years. Last year, its board of directors voted to close nights due to lack of money, then changed its mind two months later after private donors and city and state officials came up with $72,000 to close a budget shortfall.
The male-only shelter is currently open 24 hours and has 36 beds. There are also five single-room apartments with support services.
River House President Linda Anderson-Mercier said the organization's board of directors explored partnerships with the Lifebridge shelter in Salem and Action Inc., a human services agency in Gloucester, but decided it would be best to partner with an organization in Beverly.
"We have an opportunity for some new financial partnerships to come forward, and they will do that with Harborlight Community Partners because it's a Beverly-based organization with a solid reputation for affordable housing," Anderson-Mercier said. "Our financial support is basically Beverly-based, and that's frankly why we did this."
North Shore Community Action Programs, a human services agency based in Peabody, has served as River House's manager and operator since 2004. NSCAP employs the River House staff, who are paid mostly through NSCAP's state contracts, and charges River House a management fee equal to 7 percent of its operating budget.
A state audit released in August said NSCAP may have improperly used thousands of dollars in state funds to pay for services for River House that the management fee did not cover. State Auditor Suzanne Bump said NSCAP was "trying to meet a legitimate community need, but they did so without authorization and failed to properly account for state funds."
NSCAP Executive Director Beth Hogan and Anderson-Mercier both said the audit had nothing to do with the decision to part ways.
"It was really inconsequential in terms of this stuff," Hogan said. "It was more River House Inc. and NSCAP feeling that we either needed to merge or find a different vendor. I felt it was a positive move. We developed and garnered all of the funds to create this program, so this is a legacy for us, as well as for River House Inc."
Anderson-Mercier said she is grateful "to NSCAP and Beth Hogan for the support they have given us over the years."
Under the new partnership with Harborlight, River House will remain an independent organization with its own board of directors. The shelter's program director, Kate Benashski, will remain and become an employee of Harborlight Community Partners. The five single-room apartments will remain open while the shelter shuts down for the spring and summer.
DeFranza said Harborlight and River House will work to secure new sources of funding for the shelter's annual operating budget, which Anderson-Mercier said is around $225,000 per year.
Other than an $8,000 annual contribution from the city of Beverly, the shelter raises all of its revenue from private donations and fundraising events like the Polar Plunge and Dance Away for River House, Anderson-Mercier said. She said River House receives no money from the state, which she said targets aid for homeless families rather than individuals.
River House has received a $75,000 matching grant from an anonymous donor. DeFranza said that grant must be matched with $75,000 in additional donations in order for the shelter to reopen on the target date of Oct. 15.
DeFranza said the shelter needs a dedicated stream of funding from city, state, federal and private sources in order to stay viable in the long run.
Harborlight Community Partners operates affordable housing for families and seniors, mostly in Beverly but also in Hamilton and Marblehead. DeFranza has worked for four shelters in three states, including a stint as executive director of a large emergency shelter in Milwaukee.
"We are so fortunate to be able to work with Andrew," Anderson-Mercier said.
Anderson-Mercier said Benashski is working with clients at the shelter to find them places to stay after River House closes on April 30. The shelter serves about 200 men per year.
Mayor Bill Scanlon said he likes the idea that Harborlight wants to emphasize shortening the stays of shelter residents and helping them transition to productive lives. But he also called the shelter's temporary closing "somewhat troubling."
"Certainly, I am worried about it," he said. "I'm concerned there will be some homeless people wandering about."
River House and Harborlight officially begin their partnership May 1.
Staff writer Paul Leighton can be reached at 978-338-2675 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.