ELLSWORTH — After purchasing and completing renovations on a large Victorian-style residence on North Street late last year, Families First Community Center (FFCC) provided transitional housing for its first family this past February, the initial step toward fulfilling the nonprofit’s mission: to provide stability and life skills for at-risk and homeless families so they can then stand on their own.
Five of the six units are full, Director Maureen Bartley said, sitting on a side porch on a recent late summer afternoon. A few leaves swirled down onto the driveway leading to the barn that a Montessori preschool leases from FFCC and which its younger residents will attend, if the appropriate age.
The families accepted as tenants find themselves not only in an apartment but in a program, Bartley said: “You can’t just sit around.”
Tenants take life skills classes, enroll in adult education or work jobs. For those who do have jobs, 30 percent of their pay goes to rent. There is no smoking or alcohol on the premises, and tenants are responsible for the common living areas, including two kitchens and their apartment foyers, something Bartley says is currently a work in progress.
“It’s not a rigid, strict place, it’s just trying to teach some common apartment etiquette,” she said.
The center also has reunited families separated by homelessness and, perhaps, hopelessness. For one family, the mother was homeless and living in a motel, and the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) placed her child with the father. But he was also facing homelessness. The family was able to reunite in the supporting housing environment at FFCC. And the couple got married, too, Bartley added.
For another tenant who was in the DHHS family reunification program, “we were able to step in and help with that homeless barrier, so mom [was able to] demonstrate she has a stable living situation,” Bartley said.
The transitional housing residence came to fruition thanks to grants, donations and hours and hours of volunteer work, plus late-in-the-game help from the Ellsworth Housing Authority, through project-based vouchers, and a grant from the Federal Home Loan Bank of Boston.
But without families to move into the new apartments and share the communal living spaces and kitchens, 41 North St. was just a beautiful but empty box. And February, when move-ins did begin, was the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic, which continues to affect programming for residents. Just earlier, a Healthy Acadia-hosted cooking class at FFCC was canceled, Bartley said. But her main concern, she added, is the safety of the residents, especially the children too young to be vaccinated against COVID-19.
Tenants come to FFCC through programs at DHHS or are in the Maine Fedcap program, which provides education and training for sustainable employment. (The Ellsworth Fedcap office is located at 150 High St.)
A Sept. 11 fundraiser dinner at Big Cat’s Catering in Trenton drew board members and board President Terri Ouellette along with nearly 80 supporters, raising $18,000 and surpassing the board’s goal for the fourth annual benefit dinner. Ouellette said the funds will go toward FFCC operating expenses.
She added, “We are so thankful for all the businesses and individuals who contributed to the success of this event.”