AUGUSTA — Martha Everatt St. Pierre said she was researching ways to help her homeless veteran brother when she realized there were no places for homeless female veterans and their children. She hopes the organization she founded in 2014 becomes that place.
St. Pierre and the Betsy Ann Ross House of Hope closed on the purchase of a large home on 8 Summer St. in Augusta last month with hopes of turning it into a place for nine homeless female veterans and their children.
“These women haven’t done anything wrong, but they cannot get out of the circumstances they find themselves in,” St. Pierre said while touring the home last week. “These are women that served our country, and they need our help.”
The 178-year-old home, which has an assessed value of $224,000 for the land and structure, has more than 4,000 square feet, and about 3,200 will be used to house homeless veterans. St. Pierre said the house also has an attic she hopes to eventually convert into an efficiency apartment.
The house will accommodate the veterans for up to two years, and St. Pierre hopes that once they leave the program, they will have “money in the bank, a place to go that will be their home and will be on solid footing.”
According to the Maine State Housing Authority, there was a 46 percent drop in veteran homelessness from 2014 to 2015. There were 32 female veterans that accessed shelters in 2014 compared to just 16 last year.
But St. Pierre said even one homeless female veteran is one too many. Most of these women, she said, will do whatever they can to not admit they are homeless, including couch-surfing and staying in bad relationships.
“There’s no place to go if you need a long-term place to get back on their feet, get the services you need to go back to school or get new training,” St. Pierre said.
Phillip Allen, program coordinator for Portland’s Preble Street veterans housing services, said the face of homelessness among women is different than men.
“They aren’t likely to pop up at a traditional shelter,” Allen said. “There is certainly a below-the-radar element to the homeless female population.”
Homeless women are less likely to visit traditional shelters, which are often combined gender, because they’ve been the victims of domestic violence or sexual abuse, he said. Allen said homeless female veterans are even more unique.
“Having a safe place for them to address their homelessness is very important to us and the community,” he said. “There are additional circumstances for female veterans that make it nice that there’s going to be a place where women can get those needs met.”
The Betsy Ann Ross House of Hope, named after St. Pierre’s mother, will have a full-time social worker on staff and a resident manager who will help with veteran outreach, intake and navigating the complicated benefits system. St. Pierre said they will offer education on budgeting, how to make healthy foods at a low-cost, gardening and creative writing, and there will be group meetings weekly.
“Martha has been a tremendous advocate and done a lot of work to bring this idea to fruition, and I hope she is successful,” said Laura Allen, veteran outreach specialist for the Maine Bureau of Veterans’ Services. “There is a lot of statewide momentum supporting homeless veterans.”
St. Pierre said a private donor gave the organization the money for the down payment and to get started with the renovations. She has received hours and hours of volunteer labor and donations ranging from couches and tables to fine china and sheets. St. Pierre has also applied for a $55,000 grant from Home Depot and has made inquiries to several other private foundations.
Alicia Barnes, a board member, used to be homeless and is now staying with a friend until she can save enough money to make a deposit on her own place.
“It’s hard for a single parent,” Barnes said. “I lost my job five months ago, lost my housing and my vehicle, but I’ve since gotten a new job but cannot move out yet.”
Some of the problems homeless veterans have when finding a job is that their military training doesn’t translate to the civilian world. Barnes was an electronic technician in the Navy for almost seven years, but there isn’t much need in Maine for flight deck communications systems troubleshooters.
“But I know how to fight fires, I know how to paint,” Barnes said.
St. Pierre hopes to have the house open sometime in the next several months and said if there aren’t enough veterans at the start, the house will accept women who’ve suffered domestic violence.
“It takes true collaboration to meet the needs of some of our most vulnerable veterans,” said Jim Doherty, spokesman for the VA Maine Healthcare Systems-Togus. “We are thankful for grassroots efforts to end veteran homelessness.”
Jason Pafundi — 621-5663