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Beverly

Shelter is given a state lifeline

By Steven A. Rosenberg
Globe Staff / July 19, 2012
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A $200,000 state grant that was included in this year’s state budget will allow the only homeless shelter in Beverly to reopen in the fall.

River House, a wooden two-story structure hard by the Bass River, opened in 2003 but had to close its doors in May when it ran out of money. Since the shelter opened after most of the homeless shelters began in the state, it was relegated to the back of the line for state funding. For almost a decade, it has relied primarily on private donations. But after it closed in the spring, state and local officials lobbied to have funds put in the state budget for it to reopen with an annual state grant.

“We’re very optimistic going forward that the program is going to be successful, and we’ll offer a transition for people to get back on their feet,” said Beverly Mayor Bill Scanlon, who pushed to increase the city’s contribution to the shelter from $8,000 a year in the past to $20,000 this year.

Despite its funding problems, the shelter had grown steadily over the last nine years — adding beds to allow 34 nightly guests, and renovating the building’s second floor to add five single units. Besides providing Beverly’s homeless with a place to sleep, it also kept them from having to travel to already crowded shelters in Gloucester, Haverhill, Salem, and Lynn.

But funding has been an issue for years, and in 2011 only a last-second reprieve from Scanlon — who was able to cobble together about $60,000 in state, city, and private funds — kept the shelter open for the summer. That type of funding was not available in May, when the shelter temporarily closed. Since then, all of the guests have found places to live, and two now live in a homeless shelter nearby. Also, the shelter has switched management and is no longer run by North Shore Community Action Programs. Now, Harborlight Community Partners, a nonprofit that manages or owns around 350 housing units in Beverly, Ipswich, Gloucester, Rockport, Peabody, Hamilton, and Marblehead, is running the shelter and plans to reopen in October.

“We expect there to be some big program revisions,” said Harborlight executive director Andrew DeFranza. DeFranza said the shelter would focus on helping the homeless find permanent housing, health care, and income through work or by going on disability.

At River House, workers have been busy in recent weeks renovating the facility. DeFranza said the shelter had been sprayed to remediate a bedbug problem. New kitchen appliances and a furnace and water heater have been purchased, indoor sprinklers have been fixed, new floors have been installed, and the inside and outside of the shelter will be painted.

With a proposed budget of around $350,000, the shelter still needs to raise another $150,000 in private funds. But given the past donations that have kept it afloat, Kate Benashski, the shelter’s executive director, is optimistic. Already, an anonymous donor has issued a $75,000 challenge grant to be matched. Also, many of the shelter’s amenities will remain. For years, students from Endicott College have delivered supper each night to guests, and that is expected to continue. The “dry” shelter, which bars guests from staying overnight if they are on drugs or intoxicated, will remain open from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m.

It plans to add at least one mental health counselor to help manage care programs for guests. In addition, the shelter hopes to bring in medical staff to do “wellness checks” on guests, and hopes to create a volunteer program that will help mentor and train the homeless in computer skills and interviewing techniques.

“My hope is that when we reopen, we further embed ourselves in the community as good neighbors, and that the gentlemen [at the shelter] are able to find work and a home of their own. We need help all around,” said Benashki.

John Raczka says he is proof that the shelter turns lives around. A year ago he arrived there after he ran out of money and couldn’t sleep at his sister’s home anymore. He spent nine months in the shelter, and during that time Benashki taught him computer skills and helped him create a resume. He found work as a painter, and three months ago he moved to one of the units above the shelter that remained open, where he lives alone and pays $350 a month for rent.

“This place gave me an opportunity to get the things I wanted: to live, have some income, and a place of my own where I could go about my business,” said Raczka.

E-mail Steven A. Rosenberg at srosenberg@globe.com.

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