How this Gloucester restaurant transformed into a haven for homeless people

By John Laidler Globe Correspondent,Updated January 29, 2021,

Two guests chat by the fireplace at the Grace Center’s winter home in the function hall of Gloucester House restaurant.SUZANNE KREITER/GLOBE STAFF

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.”


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