BREWER, Maine — When city councilors heard a story last week about a needy family of five, including an 8-month-old baby, reportedly living in their car, they wanted to know how the family had fallen though the cracks.
While the story has not been confirmed, there are no emergency shelters for families in Bangor or Brewer, Nat Perry, Brewer’s director of health and human services, said on Wednesday. In fact, the closest shelter that takes in families is in Ellsworth.
“In this area, there aren’t any,” she said.
The city provides general assistance to individuals and families to help them with rent, food, household items and electrical costs, but people have to be proactive and take the first step, Perry said, adding that she never got a call concerning a needy family living in a car. When asked by the city manager about the report, other department heads said they too got no calls.
“They [those in need] need to apply for assistance,” Perry said.
Even if someone does not qualify for general assistance, which has income limits, staff will seek other programs that are available, she said.
“We’re not going to leave someone with an 8-month-old baby living in a car,” said Perry.
The Emmaus Center in Ellsworth is the lone shelter in the region to offer assistance to families, but Manna Ministries Inc. of Bangor is moving forward with plans to build a family homeless shelter at its Main Street site.
Manna executive director Bill Rae said the shelter would include eight apartments for women and children and a common area for support services, including a pediatrician and on-site counseling.
“We’ll have shovels in the ground once the frost leaves,” he said of the two-story 6,400-square-foot building.
The family shelter is designed for mothers and children. Fathers will be required to stay in Manna’s men’s shelter, Elijah’s House. Separating the men is just a precautionary measure taken to ensure the safety of all who use Manna’s services, Rae said.
The capital campaign is about a quarter of the way toward reaching its $1 million goal to build the shelter, Rae said, adding the aim is to have half the funding in place before ground is broken.
Sister Lucille MacDonald, director of Emmaus, said the center provides shelter services to both individuals and families, and has seen an increase recently in assistance requests from both.
“Because of the high number of family requests, we’ve opened another family room,” she said. “We now have four family rooms and two dorms, one for men and one for women.”
The 22-bed shelter is “pretty much filled nightly,” MacDonald said.
To protect the children and others, people who have a history of pedophilia, abuse or domestic violence are banned from staying at the shelter, she said.
“The thing we’re noticing is a lot more people are calling in saying they need assistance with food, electricity and rent,” the director said. “A lot more people are coming in for food boxes. And people who are not [residents of Ellsworth] are asking for services.” For example, a Brewer woman called on Wednesday looking for help, she said.
“We’re the only family shelter in the area,” MacDonald said. “Bangor does not have one and Brewer does not have one.”
If residents see a person or family in need, it’s usually the police department that gets the first call, Brewer Police Chief Perry Antone told City Councilors during their Jan. 13 meeting.
The police, in turn, call the general assistance office.
“I’ve had them call me at home,” Antone said.
The police chief gave several examples of families who have received help from the city including a group of 40 motel guests who were sheltered when the roof of the building was ripped off by high winds last fall.
In the last month, Brewer has assisted nearly 50 people, Perry said.
“A majority asked for rent,” the health and human services director said. A total of 31 families, representing 49 people, received rental assistance; two households with a total of five people got heating assistance; and nine families got food, she said.
Others were provided with household personal items, which can include such items as soap and shampoo.
If, for some reason, a Brewer resident decides to take up residence at the Bangor Area Homeless Shelter, the city is charged a fee, Perry said.
“I’m responsible for them for six months,” she said. “Any town has to pay that. If you move them into a hotel or a hospital environment … those are considered institutional and the town is responsible.”
It was suggested at the City Council meeting, that the board consider using one of the four school buildings that will be vacant when the new elementary-middle school opens on Parkway South in 2011 as a homeless family shelter.
Discussions about what to do with the buildings have just started and no decisions have been made, City Manager Steve Bost said.
Those who are facing hard economic times, should call the city, which has a number of resources available for assistance, he said at the meeting and on Wednesday.
“If we were to stumble on anything like that [a homeless family living in a car], we would move heaven and earth to help,” he said.
After the meeting, city leaders continued to discuss local resources and possibilities for improving them, Bost said.