ELLSWORTH — A crisis was averted at two of HOME Inc.’s four shelters last month thanks to quick response by the Maine Community Foundation and the generosity of the local community, said HOME Inc. Executive Director Tracey Hair.
Thanks to the raising of $56,000 in just one week, the organization was able to make critical repairs to two of its buildings, said Hair.
“We’re just grateful,” she said. “It would have added more people to the homeless system. I reached out to the Maine Community Foundation and literally within a week we raised $56,000.”
Without the emergency repairs, which included a new roof on the Emmaus Center on Water Street and a new septic system for the Sister Barbara Hance House on Surry Road, there would have been reduced shelter space available at a time when space is already critical because of the pandemic and social distancing requirements, according to Hair.
Both the roof and the septic system failed between Thanksgiving and Christmas. Revenues were already tight due to the pandemic and space was short. Because of social distancing requirements, there are 20 fewer beds available than last year among the organization’s four Hancock County shelters.
Of the $56,000 raised, $23,000 went for the new roof and $29,000 for the septic system replacement at the Hance House. Hair said the new septic system is being installed this month, but a contractor made a “temporary fix to get us through.”
“Many thanks to the efforts of the Maine Community Foundation and their pool of generous donors as well as local Ellsworth contractors for prioritizing these emergencies,” Hair said. “We are fortunate to do this work in Hancock County and to have such generous neighbors.”
The Maine Community Foundation reached out to just a few donors that the organization knew would want to support HOME.
Leslie Goode, senior program officer at the foundation, said Hair also reached out to a donor she knew.
“It just really felt like the spirit of Thanksgiving,” Goode said. “It just made us all smile about how the community comes together in the best way under difficult circumstances.”
There are other ways for the community to support the shelters.
“Our biggest need is facecloths and towels,” Hair said.
Monetary donations can be made online at https://www.homemmausa.org/.
Meanwhile, it being winter in Maine, an increasing number of people have sought shelter in HOME’s four shelters across Hancock County.
“We have experienced an uptick in shelter intakes this week and are almost full across all four shelters we operate,” Hair said. “We are testing each guest prior to entry into the shelter. If a person tests positive for COVID-19, we can provide shelter in a quarantine location until they can safely enter a shelter. A positive test does not deny access to this crucial service.”
“We’re filling up,” Hair said. “We have some children.”
In recent weeks, Hancock County Sheriff’s deputies have been asked to check a couple of times on the well-being of people living in their vehicles.
“Shelter living is challenging and oftentimes the rules required to stay are a little harder for folks to work with,” Hair said. “That’s exacerbated by other challenges folks have.”
Hair said there’s been an “uptick in unsheltered folks in Bangor and Portland. It’s really hard to identify folks who aren’t in shelter.”
The director said HOME does have grants to provide hotel rooms for people if the shelters are full. The HOME staff would provide meals to those people as well.
Homelessness has “always been a problem in our area,” Hair said. “Affordable rentals are hard to come by in part because there are so many seasonal residences. It’s always hard in Hancock County to find affordable rentals for folks or even folks who take vouchers.”
HOME has relationships with landlords in the area, including Community Housing of Maine, which has rental units in Ellsworth.
“The rental situation is a crisis,” Hair said. “There isn’t enough affordable housing in any town or county in the country.”
That’s a thought echoed by Jessica Valdez, executive director of Community Compass, an organization with a mission to break the cycle of poverty on the Blue Hill Peninsula.
“We need a safe boarding house where families can be together while we wait for housing,” said Valdez.
“There are no places to rent right now,” she added. “I’ve had seven families we’re tried to find housing for.” They are couch-surfing, living in motels and in some cases cars, or going back to unsafe living situations. “We’ve had funding lined up for them to be able to rent some place and we can’t find anywhere to put them. It’s been crazy.”
The housing shortage affects the economy. If people can’t find housing, they may not be able to work and employers won’t have enough workers.
For those who are employed, not having a home affects productivity.
“If you can’t sleep and recharge your batteries, that’s going to affect your ability to hold a job,” Valdez said.