AUGUSTA — After battling with funding deficits, permitting roadblocks and renovation problems for nearly a year, a nonprofit organization cut the ribbon of the state’s first house for homeless female veterans Thursday in Augusta.
The Betsy Ann Ross House of Hope won’t open officially until it receives its first occupancy permit, which founding director Martha Everatt St. Pierre said could happen by the end of the month. About 30 people took part in the ribbon cutting and open house.
“It’s been a process and been a project and it’s going to be wonderful,” St. Pierre said. “I’m very anxious.”
The 4,000-square-foot house has an attic and about 3,200 square feet of livable space to house homeless female veterans. St. Pierre hopes eventually to convert the attic into an efficiency apartment.
The plan is for the house, which has seven bedrooms plus a large, divided third floor, to accommodate veterans for up to two years. St. Pierre hopes that once they leave the program, they’ll have saved money and found a place to call their own.
St. Pierre said the renovations are about 95 percent complete, but several walls still need drywall, some fixtures need to be installed and the fire alarm wiring needs to be completed. She said she’ll begin accepting applications for the two first-floor bedrooms as soon as the occupancy permit is granted. When the work is finished on the other floors, permits will be issued allowing occupancy for the other bedrooms.
There are numerous fireplaces throughout the large house, a big kitchen with stainless steel appliances and granite countertops and a living room with a game and puzzle table plus a not-yet-installed wall-mounted TV. St. Pierre said she already has received several pieces of furniture but still needs additional single beds and mattresses and general household wares.
Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, said in a letter given to the organization that he visited the house about a year ago, when renovation was just beginning, and commended St. Pierre and her team for their vision, dedication and commitment to women veterans.
“This new facility will become a model for creating an environment for women veterans to feel secure, self-sufficient and independent,” King said. “I look forward to following the success of the project and to seeing the opportunities this new facility will provide for our women veterans.”
Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, said one homeless veteran is one too many.
“With the opening of the Betsy Ann Ross House of Hope, we will be one step closer to our goal of ending veteran homelessness and ensuring that our female veterans know by our actions how grateful we are for their service,” Collins said in a statement emailed to the Kennebec Journal.
Adria Horn, director of the Maine Bureau of Veterans Services, said the house not only will help the women it serves, but also will be an important part of the discussion about homelessness among female veterans.
“Homeless female veterans are more apt to be housed quickly, but they’re less apt to present at a shelter,” Horn said. “They present an interesting predicament in self-identification, but having a facility available could help some female veterans self-identify faster, and having something for them is an enormous step forward.”
Board member Alicia Barnes, a former homeless female veteran, said the project wouldn’t have happened without “a lot of elbow grease” from St. Pierre and others.
“A year and a half ago, this place would’ve saved me a lot of stress,” Barnes said.
The organization bought the 179-year-old home at 8 Summer St. in May, hoping to have the shelter open later in 2016. A private donor gave the Betsy Ann Ross House of Hope the money for the down payment on the house and money to get started on renovation. St. Pierre said she is thankful for the countless hours of volunteer labor from organizations and individuals across Maine. Without that support, she said, the project wouldn’t have been possible.
Several factors, including having to go through a building permit appeal with the city of Augusta, delayed the opening by months.
The house, which had an assessed value of $224,000 for the land and the structure, is in a zoning district that does not permit what Code Enforcement Officer Robert Overton last year deemed a rooming house. Under the residential section of the chart listing all zoning districts and land uses, rooming houses are not marked, indicating they are not allowed in the zone.
Attorney Mary Dennison, of Denison & Lake, represented the Betsy Ann Ross House of Hope and argued before the Zoning Board of Appeals that the definition of a rooming house didn’t match the proposed use of the Betsy Ann Ross House of Hope.
The process kept St. Pierre and her team in a holding pattern for about six weeks last summer before Overton’s decision was overturned. St. Pierre said in August that she hoped to get the house open by Veterans Day, but the organization still needed about $57,000 in funding.
The organization, named after St. Pierre’s mother, wants homeless female veterans to have a place to get back on their feet, learn how to budget and make healthy foods at a low cost and save money for when they leave the program.
Homeless female veterans are less likely to pop up at a traditional shelter, a program coordinator for Portland’s Preble Street veterans housing services said last year. Traditional shelters often combine genders, and homeless females often have been the victims of domestic violence or sexual abuse.
Though statistics show a decrease in veteran homelessness since 2014, St. Pierre said providing a place for homeless female veterans was something she dreamed about.
“This was her dream and her passion and she was overflowing with enthusiasm” from the beginning, said Terry Moore, of WomenVets USA, who St. Pierre said has been instrumental throughout the process.
Jason Pafundi — 621-5663