Community members and organizations are pulling through during the pandemic to provide resources for people at risk to homelessness in Franklin County.

This comes at a time of ongoing protests at Portland City Hall to raise awareness for the increasingly dire need for more homeless resources and shelters in Maine. 

Western Maine Homeless Outreach is working to secure a new shelter, which requires fundraising. In the past, local organizations have donated to the organization, including Farmington Rotary’s Early Act Club at Mallett School in Farmington with proceeds from wreath sales. (Submitted image)

The Western Maine Homeless Outreach (WMHO) shelter was forced to close in March at Living Waters Assembly of God in Farmington because the lease was expiring and the inability to operate under COVID-19 guidelines. With the support of WMHO’s board President Benjamin West, housing was secured for all affected.  

“I own apartment buildings and so everyone who didn’t have a voucher that was lined up to move in somewhere, I donated apartment space for them to move into until they could secure vouchers,” West said in a phone interview. “I kind of waived the normal process and the initial lead up cost because we had the availability at that time.”

While Western Maine Homeless Outreach pursues other possible shelter locations, it is still offering all its typical services to help people secure housing. A group of donors who include John Moore and the Bjorn family has committed to covering downpayments on the shelter’s future location.

“We are in talks with another entity trying to acquire a building and it’s just taking some time to finalize a deal, but we’re working on that currently,” West said. “We hope to have an announcement in the coming few weeks.”

Once a location is announced, Western Maine Homeless Outreach will launch a community fundraiser asking people to become monthly donors. This would allow the organization to display a consistent cash flow to secure financing from a bank to cover mortgage payments.  

The future shelter will have a different layout partly because of the pandemic and to meet what were already growing demands. Rather than one open space with beds, the organization is looking for a building with private rooms to accommodate families, provide more privacy and minimize large groups in a single area. 

“It just gives you more flexibility on the demographics of the people we’re housing from week to week. So we were already leaning toward that, but the pandemic definitely highlighted the need to have it more compartmentalized as opposed to being as open as the last location was,” West said.

While Western Maine Homeless Outreach primarily assists adults and families, the nonprofit organization New Beginnings works with homeless youth ages 14-21 throughout Maine. Their services include transitional living programs with two apartment units available for at risk youth in Farmington. 

Case Manager Cindy Harnden who has worked out of the New Beginnings Farmington office for three years receives referrals from guidance counselors. She also identifies youth who may need assistance through outreach programs and by word of mouth referrals.

Harnden typically spends two hours with a person assessing their needs and establishing their goals during their first meeting.

“I meet them where they’re at and work with their scenario,” Harnden said in a phone interview.

Needs vary greatly Harnden said, who sees youth who are often couch surfing with no permanent place to live or have been forced to leave their homes. New Beginnings teaches life skills through its transitional living program, connects youth with doctors and dentists, assists youth in returning to school or entering a secondary or vocational program. 

Local organizations have combined forces in the past to provide resources such as school supplies to at-risk youth. From left are Jenna Pond, Aydrian Dakin, Cindy Harnden from New Beginnings, Andrew Parlin from Western Maine Homeless Outreach, Michal Cushman, and United Way Community Resource Coordinator Nichole Ernest. Submitted photo

New Beginnings Executive Director Chris Bicknell said the pandemic has affected homeless outreach in a number of ways. Most public spaces such as libraries where people could typically congregate are no longer an option. This poses a challenge to outreach programs that actively seek out people in need of shelter.

For the past three months, New Beginnings has increased its mobile services and went from delivering food boxes and hygiene supplies once a week to three times a week. This has provided case managers with a unique opportunity to assess needs.

“There’s also a huge added benefit to the case management piece because now we’re going to where people are staying and entering into that space — seeing who they’re with — and getting a moment to talk with them and figure out the level of risk they’re at,” Bicknell said in a phone interview.

Harnden did notice that the pandemic interfered with people’s ability to follow-up with her. During Gov. Janet Mills’ stay-at-home order, Harnden received calls from youth interested in her services, but wouldn’t hear from them again. However, she’s recently seen youth in the area adapt to pandemic-related challenges as Harnden pointed out that these are people already accustomed to major life upheavals. 

“Transportation has been impacted, but youth are finding ways to work around the issue,” Harnden said. “Most people I’m working with don’t mind these changes and are used to the expectations.”

New Beginnings offers 24-hour services by calling 207-795-4070. The Western Maine Homeless Outreach can be contacted at 207-491-4100. 

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