What mental picture do you form when you think of the homeless?

Perhaps you think that big cities are the only places that have homeless people.

Perhaps you think of an unkempt, unwashed man aggressively panhandling on the streets of New York. When he asks for change, you walk right past him.

As he recedes into the distance behind you, perhaps you put the episode out of your mind, thinking that if the government hasn’t been able to help him, then nothing you can do will help him, either.

Although it is an iconic stereotype, almost everything about that mental picture is totally wrong.

Homelessness is not only a big-city problem; it is a problem for many of our neighbors in central Maine. After all, we live in a region where good jobs are scarce and where the price of energy makes living expensive. We live in a region where a lot of our neighbors are economically vulnerable.

A lost job, an unexpected expense, the breakup of a family, a sudden illness — it doesn’t take much to tip an economically vulnerable person or family over the edge into homelessness.

That’s right: Homeless families live right here in our community.

Despite the stereotype, about 40 percent of those seeking shelter in central Maine are women, and about 40 percent are families. About 1 in 4 are children.

A surprising number of them have jobs, but don’t earn enough to pay for heat, rent, gas and food.

The biggest mistake we can make is to suppose that there is nothing we can do to help our neighbors who have nowhere to live — because there is.

The Mid-Maine Homeless Shelter, located in a cramped house on Ticonic Street, in Waterville, has been providing emergency shelter and services to people in need for more than 20 years.

I’ve learned a lot about the shelter’s work because my wife has served for many years on its board of directors, and we’ve become active supporters of the shelter’s work.

Two things about the shelter have particularly impressed me:

First is simply the scale of the need. Currently, the shelter’s 18 beds are full to capacity with families — mostly single women with children. Single, adult women and men stay in an overflow facility located in the basement of First Baptist Church in Waterville. From Nov. 1 through April 1, the overflow shelter houses an average 25-30 people every night.

The shelter has been full every night for at least the last two years.

The second thing that impresses me is the shelter’s work to end homelessness, one individual, one family, at a time. They provide more than a place for people to sleep when they have nowhere else to go: They help people rebuild their lives.

Our society provides many resources for people who need help, resources that include churches, non-profit groups and state agencies. But it can be very hard for someone devastated by the shattering loss of a home to know where to go and whose aid to seek out.

At the Mid-Maine Homeless Shelter, every guest receives help in formulating a plan to enable themselves to return to independent living. Those efforts are often successful: only 10 percent of those seeking services from the Mid-Maine Shelter have used its services previously.

Faced with such demand for shelter and for services, the Mid-Maine Homeless Shelter is planning to build a new facility on Colby Circle.

The new building will better serve the needs of men, women and families, providing more space to facilitate the work of connecting guests with the resources they need to get back up on their own feet. Plus, the new shelter will be able to focus more efforts on homelessness prevention, since it is easier to help people before they lose their home.

The Mid-Maine Homeless Shelter has been raising money for this project for more than a year now, and it is now in its final phase, seeking to begin building an endowment to provide a stable source of funding for its important work. Regardless of whether you support the Mid-Maine Shelter with a monetary donation, there is another thing you can also do to support their work.

The next time you form a mental picture of the homeless, picture a young couple, Joseph and his pregnant wife, Mary, on the road to Bethlehem. They found no room at the inn, and Mary gave birth to Jesus in a stable, because they had no other shelter.

Joseph R. Reisert is associate professor of American constitutional law and chairman of the department of government at Colby College in Waterville.

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