Penquis, local churches try to deal with growing legions of homelessRev. Peter Jenks calls for forum on homelessness
Thomaston — Scattered blue tarps to house the homeless have been reported along Sandy Beach and behind Bert's Machine Shop in Rockland.
The blue tarp has become a symbol for a tent used to form a shelter for the homeless, said Anne "Pinney" Beebe-Center, regional manager of Penquis Community Action Program in Rockland.
"Homelessness was an urban phenomenon until now," she said. "The national government has not come to grips with homelessness."
In January and February the government takes counts of homeless people living in shelters, she said.
Clergy in Thomaston have also become concerned about local homelessness and have recently held meetings with various churches in town to address the issue and possibly find new shelters. Often times people have come to the churches seeking help, but the local shelter –– Midcoast Hospitality House in Rockport –– is filled to capacity, church officials said.
Gordon P. Mank Jr., executive director of the shelter, said he is skeptical of the initiative by some churches to find new shelters, citing a metaphoric funding pie that would diminish into smaller pieces of funding with each new shelter.
Three years ago, Penquis received stimulus money designed to help people who were about "to go off the cliff," Beebe-Center said. Penquis focused on the Homeless Prevention and Rapid Rehousing Program, or finding homes for families.
"We send people who need a homeless certificate, people who are living in their cars, to get them housed," Beebe-Center said. "We provided resources, helped them get food stamps, and got help from the Hutchinson Center in Belfast."
About 90 percent of the people's needs are for housing, she said.
"We have several resources, such as General Assistance, which comes through the municipalities. Everyone's trying to deal with it," Beebe-Center said.
When the teen shelter closed in Rockland three years ago, Penquis received a grant from Knox and Waldo counties and began operating as an umbrella agency for people in Waldo, Knox, Lincoln and Sagadahoc counties.
Maine Department of Economic and Community Development grants helped to stabilize housing, and Penquis was able to put together a financial package, Beebe-Center said.
Because DECD works through communities, the town of South Thomaston became a vehicle for Penquis by applying for the grants, she said.
"More and more people are showing up for help –– single mothers with three kids, for example," she said. "We've identified islands of efforts."
Homeless people with mental health or substance abuse problems are referred to the Crisis or PARC units at Pen Bay Medical Center in Rockport, she said.
"The fabric of our community has one big tear," Beebe-Center said of the growing homelessness.
Jack Carpenter, a youth advocate who lives in Rockland, said he became a student of homelessness when he saw how it affected so many youths. He helped form the Knox Interfaith Teen Safe Haven organization or KITS, which uses local churches to facilitate activities for homeless children.
"We helped start Trekkers," he said. "Our KITS mission is active and alive and well."
"We're concerned with helping teens stay in school," Carpenter said.
KITS meets with school guidance counselors regularly to keep track of homeless teenagers.
"Regional School Unit 40 has 20 homeless students, and Regional School Unit 13 has 14 homeless," he said.
"It's a hidden issue," Carpenter said.
On a given night, one sees young people with large plastic bags, known as "homeless suitcases," gathered around a light pole at the entrance to the Rockland Walmart near closing time.
"It's tough living that day-to-day life in fear," said one homeless woman. She wonders when life on the street will end, or when she can feel safe again.
Homelessness has become a concern among the church leaders in Thomaston, according to Rev. Wayne Sawyer, pastor of the Thomaston Baptist Church.
In September, three churches in Thomaston –– Episcopal Church of Saint John Baptist, the Federated Church of Thomaston, and the Thomaston Baptist Church –– had the first of three church-wide meetings in town to discuss the issues and what they could do, Sawyer said in a recent interview.
"We're looking for something after the Bangor Manna shelter, you know, the food that falls from heaven," Sawyer said. "We had some anger and frustration dealing with stereotypes. It's a very obvious problem."
Sawyer cited the example of a young lady who camped behind the church under a tree.
"It's a community issue," he said. "We've got to come up with a plan and get over our stereotype of who the homeless are."
He said the Midcoast Hospitality House homeless shelter in Rockport has been unable to help because it's perpetually full and say they have no more room.
The ministers of the churches want to have a youth shelter in town, but the problem is where to locate such a shelter.
Rev. Peter Jenks, rector of the Episcopal Church of Saint John Baptist, agrees with the need for a solution to the homeless problem.
"The issue of homelessness is pronounced. A greater number of people are in need. The rich are getting richer, and the poor are getting poorer," he said.
He, too, is frustrated with the inability of Midcoast Hospitality House to handle more homeless. Earlier this year, the church dropped its support of the shelter because of an inability to put anyone in there.
"We've never been able to get anybody into Hospitality House," he said. "The churches are trying to help people in need. There are people who are addicts and who have other issues," Jenks added.
"It's the elephant in the room that nobody wants to talk about," Jenks said, adding that Thomaston is not unique with a population of homeless people, but rather a microcosm of the problem growing all across the nation.
"We tend to drop it all on Rockland because that's the county seat with the sewers and the jail, and the social services," he said.
Jenks would like to see the issue discussed on the scale of international issues that are debated at the Camden Conference each year.
"We could have a Knox Conference on Public Safety," Jenks said.
"In Thomaston, a woman was living in the street –– people are living on the edge," he said.
"They are living on couches in other's homes. More people are without housing," he stressed. "How do we deal with it and not become co-dependent? Salvation Army funds are drying up."
One sign of the growth of homelessness is the custom of "couch-surfing," said Mank. That's a term coined for the practice of putting people up on one's couch.
There is an overwhelming need for housing for the homeless, he said.
Tom Lutrell, former treasurer of Midcoast Hospitality House, said he resigned Aug. 1 because he had "too much on his plate."
"I had sent Gordon a letter announcing my plans," he said. "Maine Housing Authority paid $35 a bed night, the books were in order and the place was solvent. I don't know anything else about the operation."
Kathie Carrigan, former director from Camden, who left the board in January after an injury from a fall, was in charge of the Meals for Many program, to which many local churches contributed.
Mank said he plans to conclude his association with Hospitality House in another year. "We're working toward that goal of transitioning to new management," he said.
There are 42 homeless shelters in Maine, taking people in for between a few days or for sometimes between six to nine months, he said.
Hospitality House serves Sagadahoc, Lincoln, Knox and Waldo counties and has 15 certified beds, with three additional beds for transitional residents.
He praised local businesses, including the 3-Dogs Cafe, French & Brawn, and Sweet Sensations, Atlantic Bakery, and Beth's Farm, which contribute food to the shelter, as well as the Area Interfaith Outreach and St. Bernard's Soup Kitchen.
He said he is skeptical of the initiative by some churches to find new shelters, citing that funding will diminish each time a new shelter opens.
"I know there are certain times for certain things, such as reports due at certain times of the year," he said. "That's all information that somebody starting new would have to learn."
He said the day is gone when a church can just set up a few beds in its basement and call it a shelter, because of the regulations from the state and federal governments.
"I've gone through the changes in the different fields, and I can tell you what works and what doesn't work," Mank said.
"Homelessness when we started in 1999 involved substance abuse and anti-violence," he said. "By the mid-2000s, the issues changed into economics. In the last few months, the stress of economics has brought about change in the 42 homeless shelters in Maine."
"When we first started, people stayed at shelters three to five weeks. Now they stay six to nine months. Anything beyond 15 beds is not funded by the housing authority on the government side, including funding from towns. Churches, foundations, and organizations on the private side. [United] Mid-Coast Charities is one of the important sources," he saId.
"The Episcopal church withdrew its support, and we haven't received a lot of money from the Catholic church in the last few years. There is a misunderstanding about the amount of beds we have," Mank said.
"Kathie Carrigan of Camden, through the Lutheran church in Rockport, started the Meals for Many program. Anonymous individuals bring us fruits and vegetables," he said.
"Even getting an old school, like the MacDougal School, for a shelter would take a lot of steps for funding, number of beds, food, and accessibility.
"The funding pie to build new facilities is getting thinner and thinner," he said.
The National Alliance To End Homelessness doesn't keep statistics on the number of tent cities, where homeless people often live, but according to the Alliance's website, it has gotten worse since the start of the recession.
Advocates in the United States counted 636,017 homeless people in 2011, the latest national statistics available. That's a decrease of 13,900 from 2010, possibly owing to a $1.5 billion federal stimulus program to get people into housing, the National Alliance reported.
The U.S. Housing and Urban Development's annual homeless assessment report showed that 1.65 million people spent at least one day in an emergency shelter or transitional housing program in 2010, the latest year for which those statistics are available, according to a published report on the HUD website.
Courier Publications reporter George Chappell can be reached by phone at 207-594-4401, ext. 117, or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.