Lillian Craw in her studio apartment in Westbrook in February. Craw was homeless for about four years, living mostly in motels until August 2023. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Lillian Craw loves her apartment – the galley kitchen where she’s meticulously arranged her collection of alabaster figurines inherited from her grandfather, the way the sunlight warms the big grassy backyard she walks through on her way to the laundry room, the dark gray walls where she displays her nature photography.

Craw, 39, is cleaning her kitchen. Her friend is visiting for a few days and quietly works on her computer. Craw’s cat, Chloe, hops up on the bed and she picks her up. “You’re OK,” she coos, burying her fingers in Chloe’s calico fur.

The Westbrook apartment is simple – a garage that’s been converted into a small studio space – but it’s Craw’s first real home. It’s the only place she’s ever lived on her own.

Until she moved in last July, Craw was homeless for four years. Her dolls, her photos and her grandmother’s bureau were all in storage. She stayed in motels, on friends’ couches and occasionally with an abusive ex-boyfriend. She traveled with only a bag of clothes and her Instant Pot for cooking. Then she found a home through Rapid Rehousing.

The program, run by Preble Street, aims to move people out of homelessness directly into long-term housing. A crucial part of the work is finding landlords who will rent to people who don’t meet traditional rental requirements, so the nonprofit gives them incentives, like bonus checks. The organization also vouches for their clients so landlords can feel more secure in renting to them.

Counselors try to pair clients with landlords who will be a good match, and the program makes sure clients can continue to afford their rent, keep their space clean and hold down work.


It’s a version of a “housing first” model, which prioritizes housing as the most important step to stability, before addiction or mental health treatment. Since it began in August 2020, Rapid Rehousing has worked with 180 people, 126 of whom have moved into long-term housing.

The city launched a new housing program, in partnership with Preble Street, Milestone and Commonspace, this month following the same approach. Housing Opportunities for People in Encampments (HOPE) aims to house 45 homeless people in its first year. That’s on par with how many people Preble Street was able to place last year – 47, including Craw.

The fact that Preble Street and Commonspace already have their own initiatives that follow the same model is an asset, said Aaron Geyer, Portland’s social services director.

“The HOPE program will just be an additional resource,” he said.

The city’s effort is designed to work specifically with people living outdoors, while Preble Street’s program also works with people living in hotels or with friends and family, Geyer said.

Preble Street, Commonspace and soon the city will all use the same federal data entry platform to keep track of their clients. Geyer says this will allow them to serve more people more efficiently, with all three programs operating slightly differently but in tandem.


“We can eliminate duplicative services by all being connected,” he said. “It was never the intent to synthesize all the programs, but it’s a huge added bonus of this partnership.”

“HOPE will be a bridge and another arm of the rapid rehousing programs already operating,” Geyer added.


Craw first met with Preble Street about two years ago. She said she had struggled to find housing since she was kicked out of the dorms at Southern Maine Community College in 2019 after failing two classes. She cycled between motels, sober living houses and friends’ couches, and by summer 2021, she ended up at the Comfort Inn in South Portland, where she got on Preble Street’s waiting list for the Rapid Rehousing program, she said.

Lillian Craw with her cat, Chloe. She waited two years to find an apartment through Preble Street’s Rapid Rehousing program. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

She spent two years waiting for an apartment. She went on tour after tour but said she kept getting rejected because of her bad credit score.

Then she met Darren St. Cyr.


St. Cyr owns five properties around the state, including the Westbrook house where Lillian now lives in the converted garage. He and his young daughter live in the main house.

He first connected with Preble Street a few years ago when he posted an ad for one of his apartments. A housing counselor reached out to him trying to place a client. St. Cyr ended up renting the unit to someone else, but he told the nonprofit he’d be happy to consider other applicants from their program in the future.

“This housing market is hard enough already. And to me, a lot of that stuff that landlords traditionally look for doesn’t really mean a whole lot,” St. Cyr said. “You could have a great job, then lose it. You could have a perfect credit score, but not pay on time. I’m more about character and being face-to-face.”

When St. Cyr finished converting the garage apartment, he reached back out to Preble Street. They offered him $1,500 as an incentive to rent the unit to Craw. He said he liked her and wasn’t worried about her credit score. The lease was signed by the end of July.

“I was at work when I got the news. I remember it was July 30,” Craw said. “I did a happy dance, and then I cried.”

She moved in about a month later.


Lillian Craw heads back into in her studio apartment. She said she likes the big grassy backyard outside her converted garage unit in Westbrook. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Leanne Pomeroy, the director of Preble Street’s Rapid Rehousing program, said Craw’s experience is not unusual. Many clients wait months or years, and then all of a sudden, the right thing comes together quickly.

“It’s really about connecting with the right landlords,” she said.

Some of their clients have eviction or criminal records; some have bad credit scores. There are no requirements to enter the program.

“We might put in anywhere from 10 to 20 housing applications for folks, but long term, we are building relationships. We try to understand what someone is working with and then connect them with the right landlord,” said Pomeroy.

In Craw’s case, she had only two requirements for an apartment. She wanted an oven; she loves to cook and bake, and she couldn’t do those things while she was bouncing between motel rooms and friends’ places. She also had long dreamed of having a cat, so she hoped to find somewhere pet-friendly.

It’s essential to place clients in homes that meet their needs so they feel comfortable there and want to stay, Pomeroy said.


She said most clients do not meet traditional rental qualifications, which is a huge barrier they face in finding permanent housing. It’s why moving straight from homelessness into housing often isn’t possible.

Housing-first models have more long-term success in keeping people in housing than treatment-first models, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Office of Policy Development and Research. Treatment first aims to address problems like substance abuse or mental illness and then move clients into housing.

Pomeroy is a big believer in housing first and has seen clients stay for years in apartments they’ve found through the program, whereas people living in the shelter or other temporary situations stay for much shorter times and more often return to encampments or unsafe living situations, she said.

“It’s easier to get everything else in order if you have a safe place to live,” she said.


For nearly a year, Craw worked full time at Wendy’s, where she made $15 an hour. But last week, she was let go. It was her only income.


She called her housing counselor right away. They immediately made a plan for him to come over, help her apply for unemployment benefits and look for a new job.

Craw has several expensive medications for her mental health. She has to support Chloe and pay her cellphone bill. Including her $1,800 rent, Craw estimated her monthly expenses are about $2,400.

Lillian Craw looks up at the collection of figurines she inherited from her grandfather. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

In an email Friday, Pomeroy said that while Craw’s rent is high, the program has helped her pay her rent (the amount varies month to month) and will continue to help her make payments until she gets back on her feet.

The program “aims to support folks in moving into permanent housing that has rent similar to those in the surrounding area. With that being said, rent continues to increase across the board,” she wrote.

The continued support is a big part of why the program has been successful, Pomeroy said. They regularly work with clients for months after move-in dates to provide support like mediating with landlords and providing essential home goods like toilet paper and cleaning supplies.

The ultimate goal is to have clients remain housed without Preble Street’s help.


Craw says she is hopeful she’ll find a new job. In the meantime, she is worried about her expenses. But she has always tried to stay prepared. Her bed is surrounded by storage shelves, where she has stacked toilet paper, laundry detergent, soap and other household essentials.

“Whenever I have extra money, I buy extra stuff to store away,” said Craw. “Instead of one laundry detergent, I’ll buy two and get a deal, so then I have it stocked away for when I run out.”

Even with the stress of trying to make ends meet, Craw feels infinitely more stable in this little studio apartment than she ever did in the motels.

“It feels so good to know I have a home. Like even on a stressful day like Monday when I was let go, I could come home and have a friend over and figure out what to do next,” Craw said.

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