LINC Wellness & Recovery Center Program Manager Bobby-Jo Bechard talks about a sleeping bag exchange program during an interview Wednesday at the Augusta facility. Homeless people can visit the center at 38 Memorial Drive to exchange wet bedding for a new or freshly cleaned sleeping bag. Volunteers wash the dirty sleeping bags in their homes and return them to be redistributed. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal

AUGUSTA — As drenching rains fell for several days in a row a couple of weeks ago, Bobby-Jo Bechard noticed many homeless people hanging wet, heavy blankets and sleeping bags on a fence and the porch at LINC Wellness & Recovery Center. They were desperate to dry out what, for some, is the only thing separating them from the elements when they go to sleep at night.

Sometimes she’d even see bedding that was so wet and heavy it had been abandoned.

So Bechard, program manager at LINC, brought that problem to a newly formed group of area residents with a shared desire to help their homeless fellow residents. Almost overnight, a new sleeping bag swap program was created, whereby people can exchange wet bedding for a new or freshly cleaned sleeping bag.

Volunteers wash the wet, dirty sleeping bags at their homes, then return them so the clean, dry bags can then be recirculated back to other homeless people who turn in their bedding.

The sleeping bag swap grew out of a group that communicates via email. Formed about a month ago, it now just under 60 members strong.

Group leaders learn of needs homeless people may have then send out an email to the group, and members respond to fill those needs, whether they are rides or ponchos or first aid kits or tents and sleeping bags. People willing to provide that item to help fill the need reply with an offer to do so.


A sleeping bag hangs to dry on a railing Wednesday near steps that lead down to Kennebec River in Augusta’s Mill Park. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal

“Believe it or not, blankets have the ability to provide hope and a way forward,” Bechard said. “I was able to offer this possibility to several of our unhoused participants at LINC. Their faces lit up and there was a huge sigh of relief. Blankets are an integral part of life. Every person needs the warmth that blankets provide.”

Jacqui Clark, of Hallowell, an organizer of the email group, said she launched it as a way for people who want to help homeless people to network, anonymously, as she doesn’t share group members’ email addresses with others. The group is named OURS, which stands for Our Unhoused Response System.

Blankets and sleeping bags sit on shelving at the LINC Wellness & Recovery Center in Augusta, where they will be distributed to homeless people in need of dry bedding. Ashley Allen/Kennebec Journal

Clark said an important rule is that no one in the group should feel guilty if they can’t help with a particular need. They don’t need to apologize or respond in any way, just keep it simple. Clark said a goal of the group is to remain uncomplicated, not become like a committee or a burdensome commitment.

She said she and others were moved to get involved after learning of the plight of homeless people who met for a listening session in April, just as the new Augusta Emergency Overnight Warming Center was closing for the season, leaving between 20 and 30 people who had regularly been staying there without a place to spend their nights.

“I’m one of the people who tried to ignore the problem, for years, but once you see it, you can’t not see it, and you’d have to be a psychopath to not want to do something, once you do,” Clark said. “I kept hearing about someone needing this little thing, that little thing.”

In one week since the recent formation of the group, members asked for, and received: four tents, numerous sleeping bags, about 30 ponchos, two first aid kits, a ride for a homeless person to come to a community meal, a ride to the hospital, and volunteers for the OURS “laundry team,” which cleans sleeping bags.


Marshall Mercer, founder of the nonprofit recovery organization Hope Brokers Inc., is serving as a liaison between homeless people living in Augusta and volunteers in the Our Unhoused Response System email group. The group helps coordinate supplies, such as bedding or ponchos, and transportation for people in need. Just a month after its formation, It includes about 60 members. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal

On weekdays, sleeping bags can be exchanged — and donated — at LINC, which is at 38 Memorial Drive in Augusta, near Memorial Bridge.

One of the ideas behind the concept is that it will also reduce the number of sleeping bags needed, because the bags will be regularly washed. Clark said before, some that were too wet and dirty to be slept on anymore were being thrown away.

“At first the thought was get everybody new sleeping bags, but then sleeping bags were ending up in the trash, and we can’t endlessly pay for sleeping bags,” Clark said.

Bechard said providing refreshed bedding, instead of having to repeatedly buy new bedding, will allow resources to last longer.

Marshall Mercer, executive director of Hope Brokers, a nonprofit recovery organization, who is serving as a liaison between the OURS group and local homeless people, reaches out homeless residents, to help identify their needs and connect them with help.

“I can say firsthand that the OURS group has been helpful for the unhoused,” he said. “Through their support I have been able to give out multiple tents, sleeping bags, medical kits, boots, clothing. We’ve been able to establish posts where the unhoused can exchange sleeping bags that are wet for a dry one. But most of all the best support I think we have gotten from the OURS team has been the message of hope.”

Clark said they’re hoping more people will join OURS and help meet the needs of local homeless people. To join the network people can email their name and email address to:

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