SKOWHEGAN — “I have never been able to die,” Brent Tweedie said, wearing a red hat as he stood beneath falling snow outside the new homeless shelter on McClellan Street on Saturday
People walked by him to enter the Skowhegan Miracle Homeless Shelter to commemorate its official opening day. For 47-year-old Tweedie, though, Saturday marked just one in a long line of celebrations of what he described as his new life.
As one of 43 current residents at the shelter, he is surviving depression. After pulling himself back from committing suicide several times, he said he thought: “Maybe God’s not ready to take me home yet.”
So he found a different home, he said. The men’s homeless shelter at Trinity Evangelical Free Church on McClellan Street is filled with men of all ages and backgrounds. Some come directly from jail. Others have earned college degrees and served in the military. Some suffer from mental health problems and addictions.
They all have one thing in common: They have nowhere else to go.
“This place saved my life,” Tweedie said.
The grand opening and ribbon cutting on Saturday signaled a culmination of more than three years of work by hundreds of volunteers from Maine and around the country. The two-story shelter, capable of housing 60 men, was built with $130,000 in private donations.
The sum does not include the hundreds of thousands of dollars of in-kind labor and donated materials. It receives no local, state or federal funding.
In addition to a commercial kitchen, dining area, laundry room and living space, Dr. Don Dubois offers a free health clinic for residents and the public every Friday. Residents receive three meals each day.
“I’m about as excited as you can be,” said Pastor Richard Berry, who inadvertently started the endeavor several years ago when he let one homeless man sleep on his church’s couch. The effort later expanded to the New Hope Shelter in Solon, which is for women and children.
Events on Saturday started with prayers, speakers and a song in the sanctuary. Robert Post, 51, who has lived at the shelter since April, sat in the back of the room, which was filled with about 100 people.
After his father died and his mother moved into a nursing home, the state acquired her house and left Post with no place to live, he said. Without a job, he came to the shelter.
“I’m here solely due to economic reasons,” he said.
Bill Oakes, the staff supervisor, said economics appear to be the main reason why people end up at shelters. Standing in a room that serves as both his bedroom and his office, he said, “Homelessness is purely an economic issue. It’s not about a moral failure.”
Those like Oakes receive room and board in exchange for their work, said Norton Webber, treasurer of the shelter. Annual operating expenses are around $30,000 to $50,000 because there are no paid staff members.
The shelter takes in many people with developmental disabilities or diagnoses having to do with mental health and substance abuse, Oakes said, adding, “They have a more difficult time dealing in society, so they get thrown out first.”
In order to prevent homelessness, “you have to change America’s attitude toward money,” he said. “It amazes me, the people that don’t have it to give, they’re giving here.”
The men are welcomed to the shelter 24 hours per day, seven days per week, Oakes said. Residents have to follow set rules — such as doing chores and attending prayer and Bible groups — but they may stay as long as they wish. Six different caseworker agencies help integrate the men back into society.
In the last three years or so, about 600 to 700 men have passed through the shelter. Some stay only one night, and others remain for a long time.
Some people don’t make it on their first try back into society and return to the shelter, Oakes said; but most find jobs and are able to rebuild their relationships.
He encouraged people to contribute to ending homelessness. “Don’t ask, ‘What can I get out of it?’ ” Ask, ‘What can I give?’ ” he said. “They just need someone to carry them until there is a job.”
That is the case with resident Brandon Roberge, 30, who moved from Atlanta, Ga., to be closer to his three children, who live with their mother in Waterville. He said he had a good job with a real estate management company in Georgia but hasn’t found a job yet in Maine.
He had never been to a shelter before, he said, and had never expected to live at one. He plans to do carpentry work until he can save enough money to buy a car and then a place to live.
People usually enter the shelter because of money issues but leave with an altered outlook, Roberge said.
“That’s the biggest thing I notice about people: The change in the way they act and the things they do,” he said.
Roberge has lived at the shelter two months and said he’s never heard people complain about having to attend church services or Bible classes.
Aaron Esposito, 29, who previously lived in Florida, said people who are homeless have pride and often don’t want to surrender the way they live their life.
He said he is “trying to get it right and get independent,” an act that takes resolve.
For others, such as Tweedie, going to a shelter is an act of survival.
The last time Tweedie tried to kill himself was in April. Severely depressed, he sat with a knife by a river in Vassalboro, he said. With just 10 minutes left on his cellphone, he decided to call his counselor at Cornerstone Behavioral Healthcare.
His counselor told him to come see him immediately. After Tweedie was admitted to MaineGeneral Medical Center’s Thayer Hospital in Waterville and then Acadia Hospital in Bangor, he came to live in July at the Skowhegan shelter.
Because the shelter has a zero-tolerance policy for drugs and alcohol, Tweedie got clean. He’s gone more than six months without crack cocaine, marijuana and alcohol.
“This place here is a place of healing. It’s a place to recover. It’s a place to start over and find God,” he said.
He’s still experienced his share of heartache at the shelter, though. After arriving, he befriended a fellow resident and previous heroin addict. They stayed clean and sober together.
Several weeks ago, Tweedie returned to the shelter and learned that his friend had died, apparently of natural causes. His friend would have enjoyed the grand opening, he said, especially because he helped prepare it for more residents.
Tweedie acknowledged that he didn’t have to tell his story, but “I want other people to know that you don’t have to hide,” he said. “If you desperately need the help and want to do what’s right, this is truly the place to get help.”
Erin Rhoda — 612-2368