BY TOM DALTON
---- — SALEM — Mark Cote parted ways with Lifebridge this week after six years as executive director of the largest organization in this region serving the homeless.
“Mark has moved on to pursue other opportunities,” said Jonathan Lukens, president of the nonprofit’s board.
Lifebridge, located at the former St. Mary Italian Church site on Margin Street, has an operating budget of more than $1 million, a 34-bed shelter (52 in winter), 22 apartments and serves more than 7,000 meals a month.
Cote oversaw the program during a period of dramatic growth and change, when its mission shifted from providing a roof over the head of the homeless to finding housing and hiring case managers to work with clients on life goals. During this time, the goal of “ending homelessness” became an organization mantra.
Cote was in charge when Lifebridge developed a strong relationship with Salem State University, which now offers courses to residents of the shelter. He also teaches a course at the university.
The Salem News was not able to reach Cote for comment yesterday.
He was a brusque, no-nonsense director who often served as a lightning rod, making controversial decisions, like a recent one to end a longtime program. This fall, he terminated the so-called “winter protocol,” an open-door policy for the homeless on winter nights that had been common practice for years. Now, the shelter takes in additional homeless beyond its capacity only on the coldest nights.
Cote also ruffled feathers when he released some longtime staff members from an earlier regime. At the same time, he was praised for hiring new staff with strong professional backgrounds who helped the organization take on an expanded mission.
Cote developed a close relationship with the Salem Police Department, who did random drug searches under his stewardship. With a shelter located on the edge of the city’s old Italian neighborhood and next to a playground, the director was determined to avoid incidents.
“I think he did a great job,” said police Chief Paul Tucker. “He was a tough manager...(but) he took them to where they are. I don’t think they’ve ever been in as good a shape as they are now, and I think he’s the reason.”
During Cote’s tenure, a police officer, Sgt. Harry Rocheville, became vice president of the Lifebridge board.
Lukens, a social work professor at Salem State, praised Cote’s leadership.
“He changed the face of homeless services here in Salem,” he said. “...He took us out of the old model where we’re going to keep people from freezing on the street to where we’re going to provide services to help people end their homelessness.”
While the shelter sometimes found itself in conflict with neighbors and former church members, causing dialogue between the groups to break down at times, Cote managed, over the years, to build solid relationships within the city.
“He’s been a big part of opening the dialogue with Lifebridge during his tenure, both with our public safety folks and our neighbors,” said Mayor Kim Driscoll. “It’s never easy to operate a facility like this, especially one in such close proximity to a neighborhood, but I think, through it all, Mark maintained a desire to try to work collaboratively on issues and recognized that they do have an impact on a neighborhood...”
All current programs will continue while Lifebridge begins the search for new leadership.
The shelter board may hire an interim leader, Lukens said, while launching a search for a permanent replacement.
Tom Dalton can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.