MACHIAS, Maine — Nearly two years after homelessness was first identified as a priority, an offshoot of the Washington County Food and Fuel Alliance has found a possible location for a homeless shelter, the first to serve non-tribal members in the county.
Homelessness may not be in-your-face visible in Washington County, Jane Blackwood of the Homeless Project said at a recent project meeting, but staffers at food pantries, town offices and charities are often asked for help.
“People are couch surfing,” Blackwood said, describing how homeless folks may spend a few nights in a row at a friend’s home and then move on to a different friend’s home. “There are adult children living with parents, elderly parents living with their children. Now, if a homeless person shows up at a town office for help, they are put on a bus to Bangor.”
Recalling her tenure as Machias town manager, Betsy Fitzgerald, who is now Washington County manager, said trying to help homeless people “was one of the most frustrating aspects of being a town manager. There was nothing we could do for these folks.”
The nearest homeless shelter in Ellsworth “has a waiting list of 90 people at all times,” said Fran Bodell, a Homeless Project member. “We have no way of knowing how many of those people are from Washington County.”
But in 2011, the Washington Hancock Community Agency reported serving 375 homeless people, including 125 children under the age of 18. The organization also served dozens of couch surfers.
Meeting participants pointed out that some of the needy are chronically homeless while others have short term needs. “Last winter a house burned in Centerville during a blizzard, and those people had absolutely no place to go,” Becky McKenna of Marshfield said.
The Machias home that is being considered for use by the Homeless Project was formerly a shelter for domestic violence victims. Supporters say that funding will be the group’s biggest obstacle, particularly since no money from the Maine State Housing Authority may be available.
Mark Green, executive director of the Washington Hancock Community Agency, said MSHA has suspended funding of any new shelters. He stressed that it was not that the agency did not see the need in Washington County, but rather that funding sources have dried up.
Green said the house that the Homeless Project is looking at is currently owned by the Washington Hancock Community Agency and MSHA. He said WHCA owes $66,000 on the mortgage and MSHA owes $100,000. The home was recently appraised for $83,000. Green said that if supporters of the Homeless Project could obtain outside funding through grants and foundations for operation and maintenance, the two owners may opt to give them the house. Green also said WHCA may be able to augment the project — by providing a caseworker and being the fiscal agent — but could not take the lead.
That could work in the Homeless Project’s favor, he said. “Sometimes groups of committed volunteers can get things done that agencies can’t,” he said.
“It is hard to do what you folks are trying to do,” Green told a group of about half a dozen volunteers attending the recent meeting.
“But we are determined,” answered Marty Resotko of Steuben.
The group is currently working with homeless shelters elsewhere in the state to determine a funding structure, rules and regulations and how much staff would be required.
Green suggested that the group create a formal structure: name itself, appoint a board of directors, and create by-laws and a mission statement.
“Organize yourselves and then re-approach Maine State Housing,” he advised.
Community volunteers, agency representatives, and business leaders are encouraged to attend the next Homeless Project meeting at 5:30 p.m. Monday, May 20, at the conference room at Helen’s Restaurant in Machias.