Nilsa Rodriquez came to Maine after struggling to earn her General Educational Development diploma while living in a Bronx, N.Y., homeless shelter.

But after living in Anson with her father for a few months, she moved herself and her two children to the New Hope Women’s Shelter in Solon.

“I decided to try out the shelter because that was the whole purpose of me coming to Maine — to get my own place,” said Rodriguez, 26.

Rodriguez has been at the shelter for about four months. The staff has helped her take classes to earn the GED she needs to get a job, and she plans to move into her own apartment in a few weeks.

She’s also one of about 10 women staying at the long-term shelter who will benefit from a recent expansion and upgrade.

“It’s wonderful, because it will give other women and kids chances to also come here. It’s small, so it will be a big improvement,” Rodriguez said.

The shelter’s expansion, from 10 beds to a facility that can house 28 women and children, has been in the works for about the last three years.

In his opening remarks Saturday at a ceremony attended by more than 150 people, some from as far away as Connecticut, New Hope pastor Tim Hunt said the project is a multi-church ministry with prayers and donations from many area churches.

“It’s just been an awesome time this past two-and-a-half years,” Hunt said, introducing a dozen speakers, including Sen. Rodney Whittemore, R-Skowhegan, and Somerset County Sheriff Dale Lancaster.

“The services provided by New Hope are truly a blessing to the women and children who have nowhere else to turn,” Whittemore told the gathering. “It’s a tragedy that these services are needed, but it is in times of tragedy that we can find the strength and the power of community. The community has come together to ensure that this new facility is state of the art, spacious and secure.”

Lancaster told the audience that domestic violence often plays a role in breaking up families and that the New Hope shelter is there to help women and children who need a place to go.

“I’ve been associated with law enforcement for over 40 years, and I can tell you that domestic violence is prevalent in our society,” Lancaster said. “Somerset County, although it has a lot of riches, it’s not rich with money. This is a place where women and children can come, a place that we didn’t have before. It’s just wonderful. I really applaud those who have done this.”

The shelter’s reopening comes at a time when many shelters around the state are struggling to meet the impact of a long, hard winter on the homeless population.

“We’re going to grow slowly as we have enough volunteers and staff,” said Rebecca Philpot, the shelter director. “We’re not going to fill every bed immediately. We want to expand slowly and safely.”

The shelter, which was started in 2010 in association with the New Hope Evangelical-Free Church, is a long-term shelter for women and children, including many who have been victims of domestic violence or are overcoming drug or addiction problems. About 400 women and children have stayed there in its four-and-a-half year history.

Money for the expansion came entirely from donations, including about $300,000 in cash donations. About $90,000 in material also was donated, Philpot said.

The first donation was a 2011 $10,000 grant from the Walmart 12 Days of Giving program. A young woman who had stayed at the shelter applied for the grant.

“We got a phone call out of the blue saying we got a $10,000 grant from Walmart, and we were like, ‘Wow,'” Philpot said. “That was the first bit of funding. All of the rest, 100 percent, has come from donations.”

The new 5,000-square-foot building will have a mother’s dormitory with a playroom and three private family rooms. The space will offer more privacy for mothers and children and a quiet space separate from other rooms, Philpot said.

Another advantage of the new building will be an upgraded security system, which will allow the shelter to take in more victims of domestic violence.

In 2014, the number of new domestic violence victims seeking shelter was slightly down from 2013, but the average length of stay in domestic violence shelters was up, according to the Maine Housing Authority. The average length of stay at a domestic violence shelter in 2014 was 34 days.

At the Solon shelter, the average length of stay is four to five months, Philpot said. Daily programs, including GED classes, parenting classes and a 12-step recovery program, are offered in the morning. The shelter hopes to expand that programming with the physical expansion of the building.

Like the Trinity Men’s Shelter in Skowhegan, the shelter is faith-based and requires attendance at Bible study classes and church.

Even though the Solon shelter is not an emergency shelter, the expansion will help offset the number of people seeking emergency shelter, even if just by a small number, said Betty Palmer, executive director of the Mid-Maine Homeless Shelter in Waterville.

During 2014, the Waterville shelter turned away 729 people it could not accommodate, even with floor mats in place, she said.

“If we did not have Solon expanding, they wouldn’t be able to help pick up some of the slack that we can’t,” Palmer said. “They’ll be able to better manage the homeless count for Somerset County.”

At both the Skowhegan and Waterville shelters, two of the closest to Solon, it has been a hard winter for the homeless population and each has been filled beyond capacity several times this winter.

At the Trinity Men’s Shelter in Skowhegan, pastor Richard Barry said the shelter is full beyond capacity and routinely has been sheltering 80 to 100 people per night. It has beds for 60.

“The numbers are the most I’ve seen since we’ve opened up,” he said. “There are more people looking for housing than we’ve ever seen up to this point.”

The shelter primarily serves men, but is starting a women and children’s shelter in an adjacent building.

“Right now we lay a mattress on the floor if need be,” Barry said. “We’ve had people stay in our church building sometimes just to get through the winter.”

Without the help of the Solon shelter, Rodriguez said, she wouldn’t have the opportunity to get her high school diploma or her own apartment. If she moves out at the end of the month as planned, it will be the first time she’s had her own home. In New York she lived mostly with brothers and sisters before finding herself at an overcrowded shelter with her children.

“I have housing and I should be moving out at the end of the month,” she said. “It’s been a big help, being here, and everyone on the staff is just great. I just love ’em.”

Staff writer Doug Harlow contributed to this report.

 

Rachel Ohm — 612-2368

[email protected]

Twitter: @rachel_ohm


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