ORLAND — The past year has seen a lot of changes for Homeworkers Organized for More Employment (HOME), an Orland-based nonprofit that provides work and housing for homeless or low-income people.
One of the big changes occurred last October, when the founder and executive director of the 40-year-old cooperative retired. Sister Lucy Poulin is a force of personality, and some were worried that her retirement might hurt community involvement in the co-op.
“I was very worried that people supported HOME because they supported Sister Lucy,” said Julie Ream, a volunteer coordinator at HOME.
Luckily for the co-op, Ream didn’t need to worry.
“People do love Sister Lucy,” she said. “But they love her mission, which was taking care of people. And it seems the volunteers and other people who support us stayed on board for HOME’s mission.”
Poulin’s successor was more than ready for the job. Tracey Hair has worked for HOME for 12 years. Formerly homeless herself, Hair brings her personal experience to work with her every day.
“People come here for three reasons: desperate need, they want to do something good, or faith,” Hair said. “We have the power of providing food and shelter, so it helps to have that mix and ‘I’ve been there’ perspective.”
When Hair took over, HOME was in deep trouble financially. An aging donor base and fierce competition for grants thinned out the co-op’s already modest revenue stream. As a result, HOME had to lay off several of its employees and reduce working hours for the remaining staff.
Luckily, the co-op received a few grants to help with repairing some of its buildings in Orland and in Ellsworth. Still, Hair said that the co-op will need to reach out to younger donors to keep the lights on and the employees paid.
“It’s a mixed bag of fundraising and community education,” Hair said.
HOME staff will need all the help they can get. Hair said that homelessness in Hancock County is only getting worse.
“There used to be a time when neighbor helped neighbor,” she said. “But now neighbor can’t afford to help neighbor because they’re also struggling.”
In January 2016, HOME served 38 food boxes to people in need. But in January 2017, that number nearly doubled to 73 food boxes. Hair said that 25 more people than usual had to rely on HOME for emergency shelter over the past year.
The executive director explained how homelessness can be much harder to fix in rural communities than in urban ones.
“Folks are stuck in homelessness a little longer when there’s not a lot of transportation, not a lot of jobs, not a lot of supports and not a lot of landlords who are able to rent to someone on a voucher program,” she said.
Hair added that the problem is exacerbated when minimum wage jobs don’t pay enough for workers to afford rent, let alone take care of a family or keep a car on the road.
“If somebody comes here and the only barrier to housing is employment, then you know a minimum wage job in Bucksport or Ellsworth isn’t going to help pay their rent,” Hair said. “I think that’s where we’re at. Anyone who’s working in poverty work is sort of stuck in limbo.”
As if there weren’t enough obstacles already, Hair said that she’s seen an increase in people at HOME who have mental health and drug abuse issues. That makes their road to finding a home even more difficult.
“More people are coming here with substance abuse challenges and mental health problems than I’ve ever seen,” Hair said. “Ten years ago it was people who lost their jobs or couldn’t afford their bills. The folks coming in have so much going on now.”
Despite the challenges, HOME employees and volunteers do their best to come up with solutions. Since January 2016, they found permanent housing for 124 families and individuals, which Hair said is much more than usual.
A large part of the increase is due to new voucher programs offered by the Maine State Housing Authority. The STEP (Stability Through Engagement Program) voucher in particular helps pay rent for people who lost their jobs and can be independent again within a year.
“It’s a matter of putting a few supports in place and they’re off and running again,” Hair said. “The STEP voucher is designed for that. It gets you out of the shelter system much quicker.”
Hair said an increase in services for housing veterans has also helped, but the most important development is the state’s housing navigator program.
A navigator helps people in a shelter keep a budget and connect with landlords. That way, a shelter resident can both find housing and stay housed. Though the two-year-old program was initiated by the state, HOME employs its own full-time and part-time navigators.
“As part of the program they [former shelter residents] are required to contact the navigator every 30 days,” Hair said. “So it’s pretty intensive, but you’re out of the shelter quicker, and it’s really hard for any other programs to take effect if you’re living in a shelter.”
HOME also converted one of the former shelters it ran in Bucksport into an apartment building that can house seven permanent residents. All the residents pay at least some rent to live there.
“They’re contributing to their own well-being,” Hair said. “There’s some safety in that. Otherwise they would be juggled from shelter to shelter.”
The co-op also received a $3,000 grant this year from the Bangor Savings Bank Foundation. The grant will go toward creating a computer lab for shelter residents and students.
Hair once taught six-week computer tutorials for undocumented women in New York City, so she hopes to teach HOME residents similar skills.
“There’s not a safety net program that exists nowadays that you don’t need a computer to access,” Hair said. Those programs, she explained, could be job applications, applications for a housing voucher or for aid assistance.
“There aren’t fancy Starbucks with computer lounges downtown, right?” she added. “And so the idea is to teach these folks to function in a world that’s going to be 100 percent digital.”
Hair is proud that HOME has managed to thrive despite such challenging financial and social circumstances. But the co-op isn’t out of the woods yet.
Hair said the co-op will always rely on donations, and it could use a mechanic, a maintenance person and a few more helpful hands to work in the Bargain Barn, a thrift store on the co-op’s Orland campus. For now, HOME staff will keep offering whatever help they can.
“I can’t picture us not being here,” said Ream, who was a HOME shelter resident just a few years ago. “Until someone comes up with a cure for homelessness, we’re needed.”