WATERVILLE — People become homeless for any number of reasons such as job loss, divorce — even having a baby can strain a family’s resources, leaving them without a place to live.

But lack of affordable housing is at the heart of the problem, according to Katie Spencer White, the new executive director of the Mid-Maine Homeless Shelter.

In Maine, the average cost of an apartment is $800 — too much for someone who earns minimum wage, according to White. Also, there are not enough landlords willing to make Section 8 housing available, she said.

“We have a housing crisis. That is the main reason people become homeless,” White said. “This is not the case in other developed countries.”

White, 49, of Brunswick, was hired Sept. 16 to head the shelter at 19 Colby St. She succeeds Betty Palmer, who resigned about a year ago. Karyn Bournival, the shelter’s operations director, served as interim executive director until White was hired.

White most recently was executive director for 18 months of Boothbay Regional Community Resource Council, a small nonprofit housing services organization. Before that, she worked for a Habitat for Humanity affiliate in Virginia. She currently serves on the board of directors for Habitat for Humanity in Topsham.

The Mid-Maine Homeless Shelter in Waterville on Oct. 29, 2018.

At her office on the Waterville shelter’s second floor, White said Thursday if one looks at how the housing market has developed over the last 20 years, it becomes clear that affordable housing was not part of the mix. Instead, housing was built for baby boomers, retired people and those who could afford to pay.

“The market isn’t supporting the need for affordable housing,” she said. “This is an issue for policy makers.”

The problem is acute in places such as San Francisco and Los Angeles, with Los Angeles alone needing about 60,000 affordable units that no one is building, according to White. There are things people can do to help alleviate the problem, such as finding ways to create incentives for builders to build affordable units.

“We just have to start creating new units,” White said. “Each community has to analyze their own market environment.”

Coming to Waterville with a background in women’s studies, law, housing and community nonprofit organizations, White sees the big picture.

“I do believe that homelessness is a structural issue,” she said. “There are not enough units to meet the need. We have a dearth of three million units nationwide. What are we going to do to make sure there is a home for everyone?”

Federal government guidelines for determining poverty rates are outdated, and officials are not analyzing the whole scope of the problem, according to White.

“To be considered as being in poverty, you have to be at or below the poverty line. For a family of four, that (earnings) figure is $25,750. I don’t know a single family of four that can live on $25,750. That will not meet basic needs.”

In order to find answers, the problem itself must be understood and clearly delineated, according to White.

“We’re never going to get to the right solution if we’re not properly defining the problem,” she said.

White grew up in San Jose, California; graduated from Notre Dame High School, an all-girls Catholic school, in 1988; and earned a bachelor’s degree in women’s studies, with a minor in history, from University of California Santa Cruz in 1993. She attended College of Notre Dame in Maryland, got certified to teach, taught in Baltimore and, after meeting her would-be husband, who is from England, moved to California and taught at a charter school.

The couple eventually moved to England. She earned a law degree, practiced for 2 1/2 years and then landed a job as director of an agency that worked with children and families in crisis, a job she loved.

She and her husband have five children who range in age from 7 to 28 and who live at home.

The Waterville shelter

White is impressed with the Mid-Maine Homeless shelter, which has 48 beds, but has the capacity to house up to 60 people, if needed. On Thursday, the shelter was full, with about 50 people, including families with children.

The shelter, managed by Richard Compagnon, has a budget this year that is just under $1 million, according to Bournival, the operations director. It employs 24 people, most of whom are shelter attendants and program staff.

A sign hangs on the door to transitional apartment at the Mid-Maine Homeless Shelter in Waterville on Dec. 22, 2017. Michael G. Seamans

“It’s an incredible building— an incredible team — and everyone here has a huge heart,” White said.

About 50 percent of funding for the shelter comes from the federal and state governments and the rest comes from fundraising, private donors and grants, according to White and Bournival.

The shelter in January started a day program where guests may stay there during the day. Before that, they were required to leave for part of the day. The day program allows the programming team to better meet the needs of guests to help them with careers, housing and other needs.

People who live at the shelter work with housing navigators to obtain housing and case managers to identify the reasons they are homeless to help prevent it in the future, according to shelter literature. Last year, the housing navigation team worked with 410 people, successfully housing many of them. The average length of stay for a person at the shelter is 36 days. Of those who are housed successfully, 94% remain housed a year later.

The shelter works with agencies in the community including the Family Violence Project, Maine General and Inland hospitals, United Way of Mid-Maine, Educare Central Maine and Kennebec Valley Community Action Program. The shelter’s Youth Empowerment Supports program helps offer a new start for youths who formerly were homeless. The housing program at the shelter includes apartments and a suite of six single rooms with private baths, a common kitchen and shared living room. Case management services, housing navigation, career development, rent smart classes and financial independence training are part of the program.

White said she was interested in applying for the executive director’s position because she is “drawn to organizations that are trying to move the needle, that are innovative and working in communities that are just like this one — full of strong, hardworking people who want a place to learn, earn and belong.”

The shelter, she said, is a great strength, for not only Waterville but the state, and she is thrilled to be here.

“We extend an open invitation to come and visit — come and see what we have here, come and see what we can do when we work together collectively,” she said. “This community should feel inordinately proud of this facility and what this community has achieved for low income and vulnerable people.”

The shelter’s “wish list” includes paper towels, toilet paper, men’s T-shirts, shorts and lounge pants in sizes large to 4X (in new or like-new condition), large bottles of shampoo and conditioner, diapers and wipes.

Everyday needs are listed as razors, blankets and twin size sheets, high-efficiency laundry detergent pods, flip-flops for shower shoes, liquid hand soap, drink mixes, canned food items, coffee, creamer and sugar, healthy snacks for children, milk, bread, eggs, kitchen and 33-gallon sized trash bags, socks and disinfecting wipes.

The shelter accepts donations from noon to 3 p.m. daily. Those wanting to donate funds to the shelter may do so by emailing [email protected] or by calling (207) 872-8082.


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