A new development proposed for Portland’s West End is uprooting a community organization that has provided a safe haven and peer support for people with mental illness for more than three decades.

The Developers Collaborative recently purchased 66 State St. from Catholic Charities Maine. It plans to build a four-story housing development on a surface parking lot and rehab the old St. Dominic’s Parochial School for Boys, the building at the corner of State and Danforth streets where Amistad has provided its social club and other services since 1994.

Amistad Executive Director Brian Townsend said the new owners have given his nonprofit until next summer to find a new location, but have expressed a willingness to accommodate them if it takes longer to find a suitable location. Ideally, the nonprofit, which was founded as a social club in 1982, would remain on the peninsula, because navigating bus routes around the city would be challenging for people with severe and persistent mental illness, he said.

But whether the agency can find a new home near downtown is uncertain at a time when the real estate market is competitive and social service agencies are facing pressures from housing and commercial development.

“Trying to find a similar space on the peninsula where we can continuing doing what we’ve been doing is tricky,” Townsend said.

The news, which would affect hundreds of people who visit the center, comes as other social services in Portland’s downtown are increasingly in flux.

The city of Portland is exploring options for one or more new homeless shelters. City staff has recommended building a 200-bed shelter at the city-owned Barron Center on Brighton Avenue near the Westbrook town line. But an uprising of Nason’s Corner residents forced councilors to explore other locations and other models, including as many as three shelters scattered throughout the city.

Changes are also taking place at Preble Street, a nonprofit that has a resource center, soup kitchen and teen shelter in Bayside. Last week, the nonprofit, citing an unspecified decline in funding plus an increase in costs and demand for services, confirmed that it is scaling back on hours at its day shelter, which will be open weekdays from 8 a.m. to noon beginning Monday.

Townsend said Amistad serves 175 people a day at 66 State St., where it has been since 1994. In addition to professional peer counseling, support groups, referrals to community providers and meeting basic needs, Townsend said, the dining hall serves about 60 free breakfasts. In July, the group began offering free lunch, rather asking for a nominal fee, and the demand has doubled from 48 meals to 92 meals a day.

Catholic Charities put the building up for sale to meet a long-term goal of consolidating its services in greater Portland, said Kathy Mockler, a spokeswoman for the nonprofit. Amistad helped complement mental health services offered by Catholic Charities at the same site, and the agencies may locate next to each other again in the future, Mockler said.

“(Although) we have made no formal plans to move at this time, we have had an open dialogue with their executive director about our eventual move and the desire to possibly co-locate once again if both organizations find a suitable location,” Mockler said.

Kevin Bunker, a founding principal of the Developers Collaborative, said he was contacted by a real estate broker when Catholic Charities listed the property for sale, but almost didn’t go through with the deal because he didn’t want to be seen as the person displacing Amistad.

Developers Collaborative paid more than $1.3 million for the property, according to a mortgage filed with Cumberland County. The project, which includes a total of 30 condos and/or rentals combined in the new building and renovated school, is still in the early stages and has only had a preliminary review by the city’s Historic Preservation Board.

Bunker said he had hoped to be able to find Amistad another location before closing, but it didn’t happen. Instead, he has a two-year lease that will allow them to stay, though both sides can terminate it next July.

“What’s dislocating Amistad is the fact that the building was for sale,” Bunker said. “It is important to me they have a place to go because what they do is important to the city. I’m trying to slow-play my project for that reason.”

Bunker hopes that’s enough time for Amistad to find a new location and allow him to move forward with his $8 million project. He said about 18 units would be in a new four-story building and 12 in the renovated school. He expects about a dozen units to be affordable.

Townsend said that Amistad has looked at real estate in Bayside, but worried about being in the same neighborhood with the homeless shelter and Preble Street. Amistad’s clients are generally low income, although only 40 percent are homeless, he said. And the vast majority choose to spend time at Amistad because it is less chaotic than Preble Street and it specializes in mental health support.

Amistad was founded as a social club for people with severe mental illness back in 1982 and became a nonprofit in 1996. In 2016, the nonprofit generated $1.2 million in revenue to support three programs, including off-site peer support programs at Maine Medical Center and the Riverview Psychiatric Center.

It’s primary program, though, is the social club at 66 State St. Open six days a week, the program, which cost $402,000 in 2016, includes a dining hall, laundry facilities, showers, computers, volunteer groups and activities for people with persistent mental illness.

“In our peer program, anxiety is very real,” Townsend said. “People need to be able to walk off the street and find us.”

Randy Billings can be contacted at 791-6346 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: randybillings

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