ELLSWORTH — It may come as a surprise, but rural homelessness is most often caused not by drug abuse, mental illness or domestic violence.
Instead, Ellsworth resident Dawn Coffin found out through her time volunteering at the Emmaus Homeless Shelter that most people she dealt with were living on the streets because nobody ever taught them how to live any other way.
“In rural places, the number one cause of homelessness is generational poverty,” said Coffin, a retired engineer for the state of Maine. “Some people really have no one to model behavior that they will emulate when they grow up.”
Coffin and a handful of other volunteers have worked for nearly a year on a project called Families First Community Center, a six-apartment transitional house in Ellsworth for families to live in while they take life skills classes and job training courses.
Each resident will work with Families First case managers and volunteers to create a life plan centered on their different goals, such as becoming a nurse or sending their kids to college.
During the 12 to 18 months they stay at the house, residents will spend 40 hours a week working toward the steps outlined by their life plan.
“They could be working at a job, or getting an education or training on how to write resumes, search for jobs, or prepare for an interview,” said Coffin, who said Families First will coordinate lessons in conflict resolution, housekeeping, grocery shopping and healthy cooking. Many of those classes also will be available for the public to take, not just the residents.
“It’s like an intense college course for 12 to 18 months,” Coffin said. “So you have to really want to change your life to come there.”
Coffin’s goal is that once residents graduate from the house, they will have found reliable housing and affordable transportation, learned parenting skills and earned a steady income and savings. They also will continue to be mentored by Families First volunteers for a year after they graduate.
“We’re looking for tier one and tier two mentors,” Coffin said. “Tier one would be someone who has run a household and had to come home from work to make dinners and help kids with homework. Tier two are formerly homeless people who are now in a good place in their life who can say ‘I’ve been there.’”
Transitional housing programs such as Families First have a history of success. According to statistics compiled by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), 75 percent of mothers who leave transitional houses can pay rent on their own, without government help. The HUD study also found that, one year after leaving the transitional house, homelessness among former residents was too rare to be reliably measured.
“Isn’t that amazing that they don’t go back to being homeless?” Coffin said. “It’s because people stay with them and check in with them and make sure they’re still on their life plan.”
The lessons offered by Families First may seem basic, but Coffin recalled working with homeless people at the Emmaus shelter who did not know how to cook healthy meals, or how to keep a house clean, or how to open a checking account, or how to drive a car. For most people, those tasks might feel like they’re second nature. But Coffin explained how the circumstances are different for someone who has spent their life rotating between homeless shelters and the couches of relatives and friends every few months, and whose parents probably didn’t know how to do any of those tasks either.
“When I hit a certain age in high school, my mom showed me how to open a checking account, how to balance a checkbook,” Coffin said. About the people at the shelter, she said “There’s nothing wrong with them, it’s just they haven’t learned it.”
Plus, most of the people Coffin worked with at Emmaus were young women aged 18 to 25, many of whom were learning on their own not only how to be an adult, but also how to raise children. According to the annual Point-in-Time survey for the state of Maine, three times as many women make up the adult homeless family populations.
One of those women is Whitney Larrabee, whose family couldn’t afford to pay the bills after her father had surgery in 2014. At 22 years old, Larrabee and her two small children wound up at Emmaus, where in 2015 she received a housing voucher that would pay her family’s rent in a three-bedroom trailer. But Larrabee needed more than just a voucher.
“Transportation is hard on me,” said Larrabee, who doesn’t have a car and doesn’t know how to drive, which makes working in rural Maine a near-impossible challenge.
Larrabee earned her GED, but since she can’t drive, she couldn’t use her education to get a job so that she could pay her own rent rather than rely on housing vouchers.
“There were times I wanted to give up,” she said.
Larrabee’s story struck a chord with Coffin, whose own daughter was the same age as her. Coffin and a few other volunteers started talking about opening a transitional home modeled on Hospitality House, a very successful transitional house in Knox County run by Stephanie Primm, a former businesswoman.
“We want to emulate her home and her process,” Coffin said.
Families First Community Center quickly picked up speed. By August 2015 it was approved by the state for nonprofit status. Group members started writing grants, doing fundraisers and meeting with local businesses and individuals to discuss partnerships and to get the Families First name out there.
The work paid off, and the group now has support from dozens of local organizations, including Maine Coast Memorial Hospital, the Down East Family YMCA, the Ellsworth Police Department and the Eastern Maine Development Corp.
“There hasn’t been one agency we’ve approached that has said no we don’t want to partner with you,” Coffin said. “The community has been fantastic.”
Many of those organizations have volunteered their services to help future residents work on their life plans.
The Loaves and Fishes Food Pantry has offered to teach classes on cooking healthy, the University of Maine Cooperative Extension in Ellsworth offered spare classroom space, Darling’s Auto Mall donated a van for ferrying residents to and from work, and at least one retired certified public accountant has offered to teach classes on personal finance and budgeting.
“I think it takes all of us in the community just helping out a little and we can make these people’s lives better, which makes the whole community better,” Coffin said. “It provides more workers for employers and better adjusted kids that are going to grow up.”
Families First Community Center will need a little more support to finally turn the idea into a reality. While center organizers have found a house and acquired a grant to buy it, they still need $126,000 to install a fire suppression system, a sprinkler system, carbon dioxide detectors, and other installations required of a transitional house.
“That’s the last piece of the puzzle,” Coffin said.
If all goes according to plan, Coffin hopes to close on the house in May, and open it up for families in August. She said that she still needs mentors, volunteers, and donations to help the project come through. One mentor has already signed up.
“I can show all the single parents and young parents not to give up,” said Larrabee, who eventually found work as a chambermaid in Bar Harbor. “I like to be the inspiration.”
Once it’s open, Families First Community Center could help start to ease the burden of Hancock County’s homeless people, 300 of whom sought shelter at the Emmaus center in Ellsworth alone in 2015.
“This is right in front of our eyes but we don’t see it,” Coffin said. “Until I started working at Emmaus I had no idea. It takes all of us.”