WATERVILLE — Gov. Paul LePage, once homeless himself, helped break ground Monday on a new $3 million homeless shelter here.

LePage, the city’s former mayor, was co-chairman several years of the Mid-Maine Homeless Shelter’s Board of Directors and helped start a search in the 1990s for a new shelter to replace the current one on Ticonic Street.

Monday’s ceremony was held at Pleasant Street United Methodist Church instead of the new two-acre shelter site on Colby Circle because of inadequate parking on that road, officials said.

Work on the new 40-bed shelter is expected to start soon, with the project to be completed in September. The two-story, 16,600-square-foot facility will replace the current 18-bed Ticonic Street shelter.

LePage told a crowd of about 150 city officials, homeless advocates, donors and others that the only way to deal with homelessness is to understand it.

“A lot of people who find themselves homeless are homeless because they probably have some medical issues; sometimes it’s mental health issues,” he said.

Once they are treated and stabilized, they can get back on their feet, according to LePage, who ran away as a boy and lived on the streets of Lewiston because his home was fraught with domestic violence, he has said.

As general manager of Marden’s Surplus & Salvage stores before becoming governor, LePage employed people with mental illnesses through the High Hopes Clubhouse, a Waterville and Augusta based organization that operates on the premise that working gives people a sense of self-worth and helps them to live happier and more fruitful lives.

LePage was a member of the Board of Directors for High Hopes.

“As a former employer of some people with serious illness, they raise the bar for everyone else when they come to work,” LePage said.

The new shelter is possible through donations and fund raising, said Susan Reisert, vice chairman of the Rebuilding Lives Campaign, which raised money for the facility.

“Our campaign has been a real community effort and I think we see that this morning with so many of you here,” Reisert said.

She said the shelter does not just offer homeless people a bed and something to eat, it also helps them to connect with resources, find places to live, and get jobs.

“Our mission is to end homelessness, one individual, one family at a time,” she said.

The Ticonic Street shelter on Sunday night housed 11 children and seven adults; the overflow shelter in the basement of the First Baptist Church on Park Street housed five women and 21 men, Reisert said.

“The new, larger shelter, with everyone under one roof, is long overdue,” she said.

Shelter officials praised the 250 volunteers who help at the shelter, as well as those who worked on and donated to the campaign.

Campaign Chairman Doug Cutchin, who was commended for his 21-year membership and work on the shelter’s Board of Directors, said the shelter was started on Thanksgiving Day 1990 by an interfaith council of churches. At first, the goal was to provide emergency shelter and food, he said.

During the first four years, the shelter, which was at the Notre Dame Parish Life House on Silver Street, struggled, he said. Two things happened that saved the shelter, which was about to run out of money, Cutchin said.

A man came to the shelter one day and handed officials a $4,000 check Colby College students had gathered; and another time, workers about to lose their jobs at Kimberly-Clark Corp. in Winslow, which was about to close, donated money. Cutchin said he has never forgotten those donors.

The mission of the shelter ultimately changed, with LePage’s recommendation that it provide guests not only emergency shelter but also help finding medical services, jobs and housing, according to Cutchin.

Betty Palmer, the shelter’s executive director, said services will be better coordinated at the new shelter, which will allow families to stay together and not have to leave the building during the day.

“Today is about new beginnings, about chances, and about new opportunities and breaking ground of hope,” she said.

Palmer got a standing ovation after Kevin Joseph, chairman of the shelter’s Board of Directors, praised her for her work.

“I firmly believe that without her leadership we probably would not be where we are today,” he said.

Cutchin drew applause when he commended someone who made a critical donation to the effort but wishes not to be identified.

“Thank you so much, wherever you are,” Cutchin said. “Somebody gave us a huge gift. It is $600,000 that kicked this thing off. We would not be here without that gift.”

Rick Mackenzie of Sheridan Corp., the contractor for the project, said the company has been involved in the effort since 2003 and he was honored to be there Monday.

“We’re hoping to be in the ground within the next couple of weeks,” he said.

LePage was accompanied Monday by his wife, Ann, and their daughter, Lauren, who volunteered at the shelter when they lived in Waterville. LePage said he wanted to recognize the Clinton Golf Course for allowing fundraisers to be held there annually for the shelter. While a lot of places require organizations raising funds to pay for its players, Clinton never did, LePage said.

“They’ve been doing it for years and years and years and I want to thank them because they’re just wonderful people,” he said.

Amy Calder — 861-9247

[email protected]

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