St. Martin de Porres: Helping the homeless for 23 years

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LEWISTON — The phone rings every day at the St. Martin de Porres Residence, a homeless shelter run by a Catholic brother.

Homeless people need a place to sleep, house attendant Bob Coffey said. Some have just been released from prison or from mental health or addiction programs. Others simply don’t have the means to pay rent.

They are poor, down and out with no place to go.

But even if a bed is available, not everyone gets in. To be accepted here, individuals must do something to improve their lives. There’s no holding a cardboard sign for handouts by day and sleeping at St. Martin by night.

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There’s no enabling, no warehousing.

“I won’t stand for that,” said Brother Irenee Richard, founder and executive director. “Those who support us, they work hard for their money.”

That philosophy is one reason the Bartlett Street shelter attracts 50 to 55 community volunteers. The shelter is behind the Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul. It’s supported by some in the congregation and some who are not.

Balloon festival organizer Mell Hamlyn volunteers regularly to cook dinner for residents. Typically, she’ll make a casserole such a shepherd’s pie or macaroni and cheese or a pot roast. “If we are pinched for time, we pick up pizza,” Hamlyn said. “They are appreciative of whatever we bring.”

Hamlyn appreciates that the shelter exists to help those in need. “Funds aren’t always available.” On some nights, her adult children, Nathan and Morgan, volunteer as chefs.

On the first Monday of every month, Peter Geiger and Geiger co-worker Chris McKee prepare dinner. Geiger also prepares a Christmas feast. Joanne Segovia and family prepare meals, as do students from Bates College. And every week, the Calvary Methodist Church invites residents over for dinner.

Volunteers from the basilica run “The Bargain Basement,” a thrift shop where the sale of goods helps keep St. Martin de Porres Residence open.

Anne St. Pierre volunteers as a receptionist one day a week. “I’m no saint,” she said. “I volunteer because I know what it’s like to go without.” At retirement age, she said she may be in want “but not in need. God always provided when I needed something,” St. Pierre said. “I would like other people to know they have some place to go when they’re in need. We’re here.”

Inside St. Martin de Porres

The shelter is a large home that used to house religious brothers. It has one section of four bedrooms for men, and another with two bedrooms for women. Each bedroom has two twin beds, a sink and a mirror. 

The shelter is neat and clean. There’s a large living area with couches, chairs and a large table. The kitchen is functional. Nearby is a dining room with a long table that seats up to 18. A crucifix hangs in the dining room.

The shelter has a chapel with a large wall plaque of a tree. The tree holds the names of benefactors. The chapel is a quiet place where residents can reflect, cry or pray, said house attendant Coffey.

Guests get a bed at night, dinner and breakfast. The shelter’s rules include that residents must be gone during the day. They can come in at dinnertime. Some stay a few weeks, others a few months. The length of time is individual and based on the needs and the individual’s motivation to improve his or her lot, Richard said.

On average, St. Martin helps 155 homeless people per year. It’s staffed by six workers and more volunteers. Its annual budget is $142,000, of which only $7,000 comes from taxpayers, via the Federal Emergency Management Agency. The rest is raised locally.

As of Nov. 28, the shelter’s revenue was $115,000, which was below budget. “We’re hoping to make our budget (before the year ends),” Richard said.

Revenue comes from annual appeals made in direct mailings, a food booth at the balloon festival where the popular sausages and foot-long hot dogs are sold. St. Martin also gets money from raffles, donations, the Bargain Basement store and the United Way.

“We’re here by the grace of God,” Richard said. “We have what we need.” But there are sleepless nights “when we wonder how we’re going to pay the bills.”

The shelter’s mission is to help people “get back on their feet and stay there,” Richard said. He calls the shelter a no-nonsense place. “Don’t fool us; we won’t fool you. We’re here to help and not enable. I don’t consider this residence a warehouse where we store people. They have to be motivated.”

Before residents are accepted, their backgrounds are checked.

“We want to know what happened for that person to be where he is,” Richard said. “Was it drugs? Alcohol addiction? Domestic issues or because you’re stranded or lack of employment?”

They ask the mental health hospitals, the jails and prisons, about the person “so we have a bit of history and know how can we help,” Richard said. The personal history also helps maintain safety.

“If someone comes in from out of state, and that happens, and they have no case worker, then they’re told to go to the police. The police will do a background check,” Richard said.

Each shelter guest must have a plan. House attendant Bob Coffey helps them with referrals to agencies. It could be adult education, college courses, mental health or alcoholism programs, or a job so they can save for an apartment.

Often residents come out of an addiction program and are accepted at St. Martin’s on the condition that they’ll participate in programs and stay sober.

“If someone comes to me and says, ‘Well, I’m going to stop that.’” Richard asks why. They sometimes say they want to find a job and they can’t while in the program. That may be acceptable, Richard said. “But if it’s something like, ‘It’s too hard’ or, ‘I don’t want to do it,’” he reminds them that they came in with conditions. “I’ll say, ‘That’s your choice. But your stay here is in jeopardy. You’ll have a week and you’ll have to find someplace else.”

St. Martin doesn’t have success with everyone, Richard said. But there are plenty of success stories.

Homeless who inspire

A man whom Richard identified as “Frank” was a resident in 2001. He stopped in last summer offering to cook a dinner for residents.

“Then he started to tell me his journey,” Richard said with a smile. Since the man left, he’s been employed. He’s graduated from college, married and owns his own home.

Every now and then he runs into former guests at the post office or a store. “They’ll gladly share how they’re doing,” Richard said. “For me, it’s affirmation that it works.”

He opened the shelter in 1991 inspired by a homeless man named Alan.

“He taught me so much,” Richard said, pointing to Alan’s framed picture on the wall.

Richard met Alan when he was visiting a priest. Alan, who was in his 20s, eventually shared his story. “He was living here and there, couch surfing.” He had been kicked out of his home at age 14. “He told me he didn’t know what love was. He lived on the streets.”

One day, Alan went fishing with friends at a lake. There was a whirlpool. “He fell in and was sucked down.” He drowned.

Richard visited the funeral home and saw him “laid out in his bandanna, jeans, a checkered shirt.” The sight moved him to tears.

After composing himself, Richard turned to Alan’s street friends standing near the casket.

“I told these people, ‘Don’t you ever think for one moment you have nothing to offer,’” Richard recalled.

Alan showed him that circumstances and events can put people where they are.

bwashuk@sunjournal.com

Thrift shop helps homeless shelter

LEWISTON — Near the corner of College and Bartlett streets, St. Martin’s Bargain Basket is a thrift shop that lives up to its name.

Beanie Babies that fill a basket are 50 cents.

Children’s games, books and puzzles are 50 cents to $3.

A decorative poinsettia plate, $1. Twin bottom sheet and pillow cases, $3.

“Blackmaker Root Beer Liqueur” shirts, $1 each. “We just had a truckload of shirts donated from White Rock,” shop manager Bernie Marquis said. “We’ve sold quite a bit. They’re brand new.”

A rack of jewelry, including some vintage style earrings, pins and necklaces, go from $1 to $5.

Utensils, 25 cents. Glass cups, 50 cents. Cookie cutters, 50 cents each. A set of four fancy dessert plates and matching cups, $6.

Items also include Christmas decorations, plates, cups and saucers, pots and pans, sheets and blankets, religious statues and more.

“Everything is donated,” said Marquis of Lewiston. The shop is run by volunteers. That means any money they take in directly benefits St. Martin de Porres Residence, a homeless shelter run by a Catholic brother and his small army of community volunteers.

The shelves of the small, two-room shop are full but neatly organized and displayed. Goods are donated by parishioners of Saints Peter and Paul Basilica and others in the community.

The shop is open, weather permitting, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.

On Wednesday the shop was staffed by Marquis and Stella Richard of Gardiner.

Richard has volunteered for a year and a half. “They needed help,” she said. “I’m retired. I have free time.”

When she first comes into the shop each Wednesday, “I walk around to see what’s new.” When she comes home at night, “my husband says, ‘What did you buy now?’” Richard said with a laugh.

She volunteered because she approves of the philosophy of the homeless shelter, the way Brother Irenee Richard, her brother-in-law, helps residents to help themselves. “They have to get out there and look for a job, or be on medication. They can’t be on drugs and alcohol.”

Marquis agreed. “If they catch people drinking, they’re out of there. You have to want to help yourself. Some do, some don’t.”

Marquis volunteers every Wednesday and Friday. On Monday, Tuesday and Thursday, she volunteers in the office.

“I’m retired,” she said. “I got bored at home. I spoke to Brother (Irenee Richard) one day after Mass. I asked if he had anything he wanted me to do.”

He did.

“Here I am,” Marquis said.

As they spoke, an elderly man stopped in. “I want to get out of the cold,” he said.

“That is fine,” Richard said. “Would you like to sit down?”

Another man came in to buy a rosary. A roofer, he told how his grandfather was known as “Steeple Jack” because he repaired the roofs and steeples of Lewiston churches.

Another woman, Joelene Couture, stopped in to check out the inventory. They have good deals, Couture said.

“You can get a whole dish set for $10,” Richard said. “We try to keep the prices so people can afford it.”

The Bargain Basket accepts donations. “We could use small appliances, toasters, mixers,” Marquis said. And queen- and king-size sheets and blankets.

A safe, supportive haven in Lewiston

LEWISTON — Recently released from prison, Michael Cortez is one of eight residents at St. Martin de Porres Residence homeless shelter.

“I am very grateful this place is here, for the volunteer services, for the privately funded charity organization,” Cortez said. If it weren’t for St. Martin, he’s not sure where he’d be.

Last year he was attending college and had a full-time job at a bank. He’s had trouble with drinking and has been at hospital treatment programs a number of times. “Over the last four years, I racked up three OUIs,” he said.

He was in a relationship. Then came a breakup. “I have not been dealing well with it,” Cortez said. “I’d go home alone and drink.” That’s when the third drunken driving offense happened, landing him a 14-month prison sentence.

Cortez, 51, said he’ll never forget going to prison.

“You see a big, cyclone fence with razor wire,” he said. “You realize, ‘I am being driven into prison.’ It was a very frightening experience.”

His third drunken-driving offense made him a felon, he said. He lost his job, his beautiful loft apartment. He had to sell his truck. “Everything I owned had to go. It’s all gone.”

He served 11 months and was released in late November. Coming to St. Martin de Porres took a lot of anxiety out of getting released from prison with nothing, Cortez said. “It’s a safe haven for me. I’m dealing concretely with my substance abuse. I need a safe place where I’m not alone.”

He plans to enroll in a residential, six-month substance abuse program with the Salvation Army in Portland. After that, he will have been clean and sober for 18 months. That would be “more time I’ve ever had in my life.”

Weekend house attendant Scott McClelland, 53, has been there.

In 2007 he was homeless after a breakup with his girlfriend. He came to St. Martin.

“I was in a really bad place. I had nowhere to go,” McClelland said. “They gave me a place.”

He lived there three weeks. “I had my own vehicle,” he said. “I got on my feet quickly and got an apartment. I was so grateful for the help. I came back to volunteer. I fixed things.”

An alcoholic who had been clean for years, the program helped him go through the breakup without slipping. “I stayed dry through all my trials and tribulations,” he said.

“They opened doors for me I didn’t know even existed,” McClelland said. “I found there were services in the community. They gave me names, Common Ties and Realtors and things of that nature.”

He dug deeper, investigated housing possibilities. He ended up buying a home through the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s rural development program. “I went from homeless to being a homeowner.”

Today he works part-time at the shelter helping residents, using himself as an example. “I feel like I’m paying it forward,” he said. “I know what these people are going through. I’m able to show them there’s some hope, a better way of life. There’s people out there willing to help them; the world isn’t against them.”

McClellan suffers seizures which limits how much he can work. He attends Central Maine Community College.

Eventually, he and Cortez want to start their own business helping men in recovery.

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