WATERVILLE, Maine — The opening of the new Mid Maine Homeless Shelter on Monday morning is a major step in helping to end the growing problem of homelessness in the Waterville area, said Betty Palmer, executive director of the shelter.
The $2.7 million building located on Colby Circle was 22 years in the making. The building, which was funded entirely by donations, has 40 adult beds with portable cribs and toddler beds. It also has 12 emergency mats. The groundbreaking was held in February.
The former, smaller homeless shelter on Ticonic Street has since been sold, said Palmer.
The new facility is one of more than 50 emergency shelters in the state, according to the Maine State Housing Authority.
Gov. Paul LePage, who was the chairman of the Mid Maine Homeless Shelter before becoming Waterville’s mayor, helped open the new facility Monday. He said communities must come together to battle homelessness.
“Homelessness will only be resolved at the local level,” said LePage. “It will not be resolved at the federal level. We’re trying to be everything to everybody at the federal level, but this is how it gets done. It gets done with contributions, hard work, volunteerism and just community working together to solve a problem.”
The Rev. John Weeks, better known as Pastor Jack, has been working to give Piscataquis County its first homeless shelter in Parkman but is still having trouble raising a down payment on the former Parkman Elementary School building.
“We’re still working on it,” Weeks said in a telephone interview Monday. “It’s too bad because we’re turning people away.”
Palmer said she has seen a rise in the number of homeless cases.
“There’s been a greater need than most people have known for a long time,” said Palmer. “Homeless people try to be invisible. They’re ashamed of their homelessness, they’re embarrassed. So they often try to get lost in a crowd, lost in a store, lost in the woods so nobody will know that they’re homeless.”
Giving people a second chance has been a joy for Palmer, she said.
“[Donors] don’t get to hear directly from the homeless persons who come here to turn their lives around,” said Palmer. “They’ll say, ‘I didn’t deserve a second chance, but you gave me one anyways.’”
Palmer said she was also proud of the fact that numerous people came the shelter in the past year but never had to stay even one night. The facility’s homeless prevention center helped 30 families so they didn’t ever need to stay overnight, she said.
She recalled one 50-year-old woman who worked for an employer who was forced to cut everyone from 40 hours per week to 32.
“That means that three months later, she hadn’t paid all of her rent, only partially,” said Palmer. “She knew in three more months, she’d be evicted. She showed up at the shelter and said, ‘I’m going to be evicted in three months.’ I said, ‘Tell us more.’
“She was afraid to ask her employer to ask for those hours back because everybody got cut across the top,” said Palmer. “So we sat with her and her employer and figured out a way to for her to work 40 hours. She got her rent caught up and she never had to come into the shelter.”
Donations to the new shelter ranged from the $600,000 given by an anonymous donor to a single dollar per month from a woman on Social Security.
“She said, ‘I’m committing a dollar for the next two years.’ Every month when her Social Security check came, she brought in a dollar,” said Palmer, who started to cry when telling the story. “It’s probably the greatest gift I’ve received during the whole capital campaign.”
LePage said it’s those sorts of donations that help give people a second chance.
“That’s what it’s all about. It’s all about people who are down and out and helping them get back on their feet,” said LePage. “The most important and proud thing about it is, it’s not done by government.”