WATERVILLE — On the first day of school this year, 21 children were living at the Mid-Maine Homeless Shelter on Colby Street.
It was the second-largest number of children the 40-bed shelter had ever housed at one time.
Shelter officials say they were sensitive to the fact that the children might be embarrassed about that, so they discussed whether to have the school bus pick them up at the shelter or from another location.
In previous years — when the shelter was in an old, run-down house on Ticonic Street — the children might have opted for the latter but be picked up elsewhere.
Not this time around.
“Those kids wanted to be picked up at the shelter,” said Susan Reisert, a member of the shelter’s board of directors. “There was much more of a sense of ownership, that this is where we are, and our lives are going to get better from here.”
The children’s decision might have had something to do with the fact that the 1-year-old, $2.7 million shelter is a large, attractive building in a sunny spot north of downtown.
It is a far cry from the cramped house on Ticonic Street the shelter occupied for 22 years, with just 18 beds, before the new building opened a year ago.
With more space and a better location, the shelter can house more homeless people, connect them with more resources and help them learn life skills designed to help them get them back on their feet, according to Reisert, chairman of the board’s development committee.
“It’s an emergency shelter,” she said. “It’s there to meet people at an incredibly desperate hour.”
To celebrate the shelter’s one-year anniversary, officials will host an open house from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday. Former shelter guests will talk briefly about how the shelter helped them, volunteers will share stories of their experiences, and young people will be honored for their work to build a new playground there. Dirk Kershner, chairman of the shelter’s board of directors, also will speak; and tours of the shelter will be given throughout the day.
Shelter officials also expect to announce a plan to install a $65,000 elevator in the building. Already, $43,000 has been raised toward the effort, and an anonymous donor has pledged an $11,000 match if the shelter raises the final $11,000. Shelter officials expect to raise the money by the end of this month.
Having an elevator will allow the large, open second floor to be used for purposes not yet identified, but ones that will benefit both the shelter and the community, according to Reisert.
Both she and the shelter’s executive director, Betty Palmer, said a group of community officials, including City Manager Michael Roy and School Superintendent Eric Haley, are joining shelter officials to determine the best use of the space.
The group plans to hold its first meeting this month, Reisert said.
Monday night, around 55 people stayed at the shelter, according to Palmer. She expects that by the end of December, the new shelter will have served more than 500 people this year.
“We’re still turning people away,” she said.
When the weather gets colder, the shelter packs people in, giving them mattresses on the floor, chairs, cots — whatever officials can find, Palmer said.
“I tell people at the door, ‘All I have is a chair; all I have is a floor mat,’ Palmer said. “They say it’s better than where they have been sleeping.”
Shelter officials say they are seeing more people coming into the shelter with substance abuse problems, mental health problems and other difficulties. The number of homeless people seeking shelter and help is increasing, according to Palmer.
“It’s been a steady 7 to 13 percent increase per year for the last five years,” she said.
The shelter operates on $650,000 a year, she said. About 12 percent comes from federal funding and the rest is raised locally through golf tournaments, churches, concerts, school bake sales and other events. Some people leave the shelter money in their wills; others give a $20 donation a year or whatever they can afford, Palmer said.
One of 43 homeless shelters in the state, the Waterville shelter serves mostly people from area towns, Palmer said. The shelter partners with 17 organizations, including Educare Central Maine, Kennebec Behavioral Health, Kennebec Valley Community Action Program, the city of Waterville, the Waterville Public Library, and Waterville Area Adult & Community Education.
On Tuesday, Palmer was returning to the shelter from Augusta, where she attended a monthly meeting of the statewide Homeless Council.
Members had discussed the U.S. government shutdown and how some services offered to poor people are affected because agencies funded by federal money are closed or workers are on furlough, she said.
Palmer said the shelter sends quarterly reports to obtain money from an emergency solutions fund, and she is concerned that federal workers may not be in their offices to take the reports. As a result, she was not sure if the shelter will receive funding if the shutdown continues.
“If we did not live in a generous community, we would be closing,” she said. “We’re in a special community where we have a large donor base and it’s not a wealthy donor base, but people send us $20 or $50 a year. We are really a community shelter. We have a whole lot of saving grace.”
Palmer said she welcomes everyone to come to Monday’s event, where they will be invited to sign an anniversary quilt that will hang on the shelter wall.
“It really is just a celebration of all that we’ve been able to do with the community’s help,” she said. “It’s really a celebration of the last 23 years.”
Amy Calder — 861-9247