SKOWHEGAN — Rick Berry was 7 years old when his home in North Anson burned to the ground.
He said if it hadn’t been for his family, he would have been lost.
It is that memory the Rev. Richard Berry, now 65, senior pastor at Trinity Evangelical Free Church in Skowhegan, said he used to open a men’s homeless shelter the church runs on McClellan Street.
Now he wants to open a shelter to families without their own homes, with recent surveys showing a growing homeless population in Maine believed to number in the thousands.
On Thursday, Berry closed on the purchase of a house and barn on land that abuts church property on West Front Street. The property will be renovated to become a homeless shelter for families, which could open this year if donations keep coming in.
The men’s shelter is licensed for men only — no women, no children. Berry said he wants to keep families together.
“That could have been me when we burned out,” Berry said. “We burned out and everything went — the house, the barn, everything. But I never was scared, because I had Mum and Dad.
“That’s what I picture when I get a call from these families. As a kid, I’d have been destroyed if Dad couldn’t have been there with me. That’s why I’m doing what I’m doing.”
The church paid $50,000 for the foreclosed home at 84 Front St., plus closing fees. Berry said he raised the money in six weeks through donations from his speaking engagements across New England.
He said the timeline for renovations and the opening of the family shelter will depend on the community and how fast donations of time, money, labor and materials come in.
“What I’m trying to do is get the community and church to work together,” he said. “The community is not the government. I’m not talking about hooking up with state or federal. I’m not talking about church and state; I’m talking about church and community, and I don’t think those two have to be separate.”
Berry said he is getting the keys to the house next week, once the paperwork is finalized with the bank. The next step, he said, is a visit by Skowhegan Code Enforcement Officer Randy Gray and a tour of the property to bring everything up to code.
The two-story farmhouse has four bedrooms upstairs and large rooms on the main floor. The barn is large and will be converted to accommodate family living, Berry said. He said the large yard will be fenced off as a play area for children.
He said once the renovations are complete, the Trinity Family Shelter will house eight or nine families at a time.
“I’m doing handstands. I’m excited,” he said. “This area is in desperate need of a family shelter. This is going to mean when we get calls, we’ve got a place to keep Mum, Dad and the little ones all in one place, and that’s important. I’ll sleep a little better when I know families are together.”
Recent studies of homelessness in Maine estimate the population at up to several thousand people.
The Maine State Housing Authority last year released a survey of Maine’s homeless population, counting nearly 1,200 people who didn’t have a place to live one night in January 2013. The housing authority reported 1,175 people were living in emergency shelters, in cars and tents, and on the street in the annual Point in Time Survey on Jan. 30, 2013.
Of that total, 480 were in Portland and 695 were in the rest of the state. The number included 297 families and 169 children. The tally represented an 8 percent increase over the 2012 survey, when 1,050 homeless people were counted.
The Point in Time Survey, however, provided a snapshot of Maine’s homeless population on just one particular night. The housing authority says 7,745 different people sought refuge in homeless shelters across the state in 2012, according to the report.
Another estimate by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, based on two other point-in-time surveys, shows homelessness in Maine increasing from 2,393 people in 2012 to 3,016 in 2013.
Homelessness in Maine is concentrated in four counties: Androscoggin, Cumberland, Kennebec and Penobscot, which accounted for 76 percent of Maine’s homeless population, according to the housing authority survey.
Cindy Namer, director of the homeless initiative at the housing authority, said the survey has no data specific about Somerset county because the shelters and municipalities in the county, including Skowhegan, do not participate.
Estimates aside, there is a need in the Skowhegan area. The only shelters in Somerset County are Trinity and New Hope Shelter in Solon, which is for women and children, according to the Maine Housing Authority. The Family Violence Project also provides shelter for those seeking refuge from an abusive situation.
Berry said the men’s shelter, which opened with 45 beds in 2008, expanded two years ago and now accommodates 60 men. He said the shelter is at capacity.
Rebecca Philpot, director of Solon’s New Hope Shelter, said in December it has capacity for 12 women and their children. A new shelter is under construction and will house 32 women and their children once it opens later this year.
Philpot could not be reached Thursday for current numbers at the shelter.
She said in December that she welcomes a family shelter in Skowhegan because she has had to turn away families with older boys or fathers in the group.
Berry said social service agencies, including the state Department of Health and Human Services, are referring homeless families to his church. But because the shelter is just for men, he has no permanent place for them to stay.
He said families will be able to stay at the new shelter until housing can be found for them. He said it usually takes less time to find a permanent home for a family than for a single man from the shelter.
“We get plenty of calls for families,” Berry said. “We tell them we’ll do the best we can to take care of them; we’ll find temporarily shelter for them. That’s why I’m building a family shelter, to handle these calls that are coming in.”