PRESQUE ISLE, Maine — During each budget cycle for the past three years that he has been the executive director of Homeless Services of Aroostook, Stephen Eyler has written to the 78 communities in the region seeking taxpayer support for the only homeless shelter in The County.
In 2013, only 36 towns appropriated money for the Sister Mary O’Donnell Homeless Shelter in Presque Isle, which Eyler’s nonprofit organization operates and where 43 beds are open to individuals and families in need of shelter. And in the past, support for the shelter hasn’t been much better.
“It’s been very difficult at times,” Eyler said during a recent interview. “I would like to think the stigma against the homeless has lessened a bit over the years, but [it hasn’t]. There are still people out there who believe that people who are homeless are that way because they deserve it, because they are alcoholics or drug addicts or lazy. In Aroostook County, that’s not reality. In 2012, for instance, we assisted 163 people. Fifty-eight of those people were children, and obviously kids aren’t lazy, on drugs or alcoholics. They’re innocent.”
The shelter, which opened in 1984, offers a safe, warm place to sleep and access to hot showers, three meals per day, laundry facilities and case management services. It is a high-barrier shelter, meaning that residents can’t be under the influence of drugs or alcohol on the premises, nor can they be the subject of outstanding warrants. The shelter staff also conducts background checks to assure that residents are not sex offenders, violent or have extreme mental health problems.
“We have to assure that safety is our first priority here, especially now that we are seeing so many families,” he said. “Recently, we had a husband and wife and five children stay with us. They needed two rooms. That’s staggering to me. A decade ago, the average age of the resident here was 31 to 50 years old. Now, it’s 18 to 36 years old.”
Eyler said that a case manager helps each resident establish a plan to secure independent living facilities, a job, education and more.
“We are not just a cot to crash on,” he said. “We help the towns and cities keep their general assistance budgets low, because if the person who had stayed at our shelter had gone to the town, the town would have given them money to stay in a hotel, to buy food and toiletries and things. We are helping them by lowering that impact on their General Assistance budget, and we are also stepping in with case management services and helping them look for work and housing and other resources.”
Eyler said that he also was flabbergasted and a bit angry when he learned that under Maine law municipalities have to allocate a certain amount of money each year for their local animal shelter.
“There is no law that they have to give any money to homeless shelters,” Eyler said. “I love animals, and I support animal shelters, but I am still trying to process that one. That means animals are being fed and cared for and human beings are not.”
In the last three years, the shelter has served 563 individuals, including about 150 children. But Eyler stressed that for every person helped, two or three others on average during that same period were turned away.
“And those are only the ones we know about,” he said, referring to the homeless who couldn’t be helped. “We don’t know how many others might be out there who didn’t try to contact us.”
Since 75 percent of the shelter residents come from Aroostook County, Eyler asks in his budget letter to the communities that each town consider contributing to the shelter each year $1.50 per person based on the local population.
Under that contribution plan, a tiny, rural town such as Amity, which had a recorded population of 238 during the 2010 census, would contribute $357, while the much larger city of Presque Isle, population of 9,692, would put forth $14,538.
The executive director said that in the past, one community donated $20,000 to help the shelter with operating expenses. That year, Eyler noted, about $50,000 was spent assisting homeless residents from that particular community who used shelter services.
The amount being sought from communities still would support only about 40 percent of the shelter’s roughly $250,000 annual operating budget, according to Eyler. Other funds come from state and federal programs administered by the Maine State Housing Authority, from the United Way of Aroostook, area churches and civic organizations, and individual donations.
But the need is there, he said, with the shelter serving residents from around The County, including from Presque Isle, Caribou, Fort Fairfield, Houlton and Mars Hill.
“People don’t realize it,” he said. “They don’t realize how big a problem it is because no one is standing out yet on a traffic island with a cup in their hand. No one is sleeping on the street corner. But this is real. We have entire families sleeping here. We have veterans who served our country. This is a real problem, and we need a long lasting solution.”
For information or to donate, visit the Homeless Services of Aroostook website at www.aroostookhomeless.org, or mail checks to Sister Mary O’Donnell Shelter, P.O. Box 1753, Presque Isle, Maine 04769.