A popular Gloucester restaurant known for its fresh seafood and harbor views has taken on a new role this winter as a temporary haven for people in need of daytime shelter, meals, and other assistance.
In December the Grace Center, a drop-in day program for homeless people run by Lifebridge North Shore, temporarily relocated from its regular quarters in the basement of the Unitarian Universalist Church on Church Street to the function hall of the Gloucester House Restaurant.
The arrangement, which has the active support of city and state officials, gave the center the added space it needed this winter to fully serve its guests while meeting social distancing requirements. The restaurant and its function hall are currently closed due to COVID-19, with plans to reopen in May.
“As a provider, it’s inspirational to see a business owner along with municipal leaders step up in this way,” said Jason Etheridge, executive director of the nonprofit Lifebridge. “We are bringing dignity to a group of people who otherwise would have nowhere to go.”
The Grace Center, normally open weekdays only, is able to operate seven days a week at the temporary site. Meals are prepared by the center’s staff and volunteers using the restaurant’s kitchen.
The Grace Center’s wintertime move reflects the creative work-arounds many shelters have devised to continue operating during a pandemic.
Joe Finn, executive director of the Massachusetts Housing and Shelter Alliance, said the health crisis has revealed that the state’s shelters were not set up for social distancing. When COVID-19 struck, he noted, many had to sharply reduce capacity and then scramble to find added spaces.
“If there is a silver lining to this pandemic, it’s been the innovation we’ve seen from these community-based organizations and the community response,” he said.
Relocating to a space normally used for weddings and other special occasions also gives the Grace Center’s approximately 50 daily guests the chance to enjoy such amenities as a fireplace, banquet tables decked with flowers, and waterfront scenery.
“We typically operate in basements of churches and places like that,” Etheridge said of shelter programs. “For our guests, this has been a bright spot in an otherwise very difficult time.”
Guests are enjoying the ambiance of the temporary setting.
“It’s pretty cool,” said Andrew, a regular at the Grace Center for the eight years he has been in and out of homelessness — he currently sleeps on the street, in the woods, or at the Gloucester train station. “I like it better over here. It’s a lot more open and a lot bigger. It’s very welcoming.
“I love the food here, I like the services they provide — they give you clothes and blankets, and the people help you a lot,” added Andrew, who is homeless due to a heroin addiction he hopes to have kicked as a result of a recent visit to a treatment facility.
“This was the most selfless thing that anyone can do,” Mayor Sefatia Romeo Theken said of Gloucester House owner Lenny Linquata’s willingness to welcome homeless people to “this beautiful waterfront function hall, [a place] that makes you feel like a princess when you get married there.”
Linquata, whose restaurant has been donating meals to the Grace Center each month the past several years, said with his function hall available and Lifebridge in need of space, “We thought this was something that could work for the Grace Center, the city, and the underserved community.”
Since last summer, Father Bill’s & MainSpring has been housing guests in hotels to lower capacity at its Quincy and Brockton shelters. Before that, the agency used the Quincy YMCA field house and tents in Brockton for the overflow. The group also is leasing hotel rooms to house Plymouth guests it normally shelters in churches during winters.
The organization is accustomed to seeking temporary spaces to accommodate shelter overflow during tough winters, ”but this is something we never planned for,” John Yazwinski, president and CEO of Father Bill’s & MainSpring, said of the larger adjustments required now.
He said the experience has actually inspired his agency to look for opportunities to purchase hotels for use as permanent affordable housing. That effort is already taking concrete form with the group’s recent agreement to purchase a 68-room Brockton hotel.
Etheridge said Lifebridge also has devised temporary measures for its overnight shelter in Salem. From April through June, Lifebridge and other area groups used Salem High School’s field house as quarantine space for homeless persons exposed to COVID-19. Recently, Lifebridge leased a social club next to its Salem shelter to house overflow guests.
The temporary relocation of its Gloucester center, which runs through May 1, resulted from a collaborative effort among Lifebridge, city officials, and the restaurant.
When the pandemic began, Lifebridge and Action, Inc., which runs an overnight shelter in Gloucester, both relocated their operations to the gym of the then-closed Gloucester YMCA, which became a 24-hour-a-day shelter.
Once that arrangement ended in late June, the Grace Center returned to its regular site. But by fall, the group realized it needed more space this winter due to social distancing and a rising demand for its services due to COVID-19. In addition to shelter, breakfast, and lunch, the center offers services ranging from life skills training to music and art therapy.
Reaching out to other community leaders to help the center solve its space problem, Theken learned through state Representative Ann-Margaret Ferrante that Linquata was offering use of his function hall. Linquata confirmed the offer when the mayor contacted him.
“I said, ‘Are you serious?’” Theken recalled. “He said, ‘I’m absolutely serious. That’s my function hall, it hasn’t been open because of COVID and there are human beings that need a place.’”
The Grace Center requires all guests and staff to wear masks and practice social distancing. Etheridge said compliance has been generally good; only two people — a staff member in April and a recent guest — have tested positive for COVID-19.
Theken said on visits to the temporary location, she was impressed by the warm and even festive atmosphere.
“There were donated flowers on the table,” she said. “I saw the fireplace and people playing guitar and cribbage. There was coffee and tea and all this wonderful food donated from different places.” The positive effect on residents was evident.
“I really felt they were content,” Theken said. “For the first time, they were all interacting like a family.”
The only compensation the restaurant is receiving is state funding to cover the electricity and other costs of operating the program in an otherwise idle building, officials said.
Theken said she lost sleep last fall worrying about how the city could care for its homeless during the winter.
“Now because of Jason and Lenny, I’m sleeping a lot better, knowing that they’re safe,” she said.
“What a change of environment going from the cellar of a church and coming over here,” said Scott, who started going to the center in 2019 after he lost his job as a fisherman and became homeless due to a heroin addiction — he has since regained his job and found an apartment after kicking his habit in a six-month stay at a treatment facility.
”It’s a great place to come,” he said of the temporary site. “Almost like a clubhouse feel.”
John Laidler can be reached at email@example.com.