It came as surprise to read on Friday morning that there is no emergency overnight shelter in Waterville given the almost 100 people we had in shelter Thursday night, and  have had every night, since our founding in 1990. Suggestions to the contrary ill serve the community.

Mid-Maine Homeless Shelter & Services provides emergency overnight shelter for people who have no safe, permanent place to sleep at night. We operate a Housing First model, which says the best way to solve the individual and community crisis of homelessness is to house everyone. Stable, permanent housing is the key to solving a host of other problems, too, from substance misuse to mental illness. You can’t stabilize other problems if you are worried about where you will lay your head at night.

We normally operate with 55 beds at our Colby Street location but since the start of the pandemic, we have operated one of six FEMA-funded hotel programs. We were invited to do this by Maine State Housing Authority based on our leadership and track record of excellence. As a result, we were able to dramatically increase our capacity to serve even though, because of social distancing, there are fewer beds at Colby Street.

Katie Spencer White is executive director of the Mid-Maine Homeless Shelter in Waterville. Morning Sentinel file photo by Michael G. Seamans

Operating crisis intervention services in a pandemic is neither inexpensive nor easy. Here, again, the suggestion belies reality. We owe a duty of care to every single person we serve, and our team works extraordinarily hard to protect the health and safety of our guests. Notwithstanding our regular protocols, we are one of the few shelters in the state to offer rapid COVID tests on site, which requires a federal testing waiver and extensive staff training as well as federal reporting. We have upgraded air ventilation systems, maintained social distancing, and obtained a prescription for Narcan so we can better meet the needs of the community. Our staff also regularly participate in skill development, from CPR/AED, boundaries and sexual harassment training to mental health first aid, equity, safe-serve kitchen certification, and de-escalation techniques.

From Nov. 1 to March 31, we operate an unfunded walk-in warming center which gives people a safe place to shelter during the most dangerous cold-weather months. It is open to all and everyone who comes is given a COVID test, access to a shower and bathroom, a bed, and food to help them settle in. If the weather is bad the next morning, they are welcome to stay. This is in addition to our daily walk-in service, which allows anyone to come in and use a shower and bathroom, launder their clothes, and access other services.

Very often, conversations about homelessness focus exclusively on shelter beds. This is a mistake. They are expensive and hard to operate on multiple sites, even if we could find a location, staff are so hard to find at present that many of our current team work significant overtime in order to keep our doors open.

That’s why, when invited by a member of Waterville City Council to apply for ARPA funding that could be deployed immediately to meet urgent needs (as was the Waterville Police Department, who were awarded $50,000 to address substance use), we offered a three-point plan that focuses on diversion, master leasing, and expanding case management to help people in crisis exit hotels.

Diversion is a program developed by Maine State Housing Authority  and our organization has been operating a pilot project since March, successfully diverting 30% of people contact us from having to come into shelter by helping them find alternative stable housing and using discretionary funds when necessary. Keeping beds available for those with no other alternatives is critical since, according to the CDC, we will likely be in a pandemic through the end of 2023 and therefore operating with reduced shelter capacity across the state.

I am so committed to the promise of diversion that I took the “train the trainer” course when offered by MSHA. I am now one of 4 trainers in Maine and this is sole reason we are able to offer the training to other organizations who wish to establish their own Diversion programs and utilize the ARPA funding we secured for this purpose. Our job as administrators is grant reporting and oversight – the necessary work of collecting reports and reviewing financial statements from subgrantees to ensure funding is being spent in accordance with regulations and principles of sound fiscal management, as well as providing on-going technical assistance.

We also need to meet the housing needs of the most vulnerable through permanent supportive housing (PSH) and we’ll generate the necessary units through master leasing. As local PSH landlords ourselves, we have a lot of experience in this area and know what it takes to help our guests stay permanently housed. We hope master leasing will help us generate 20 units of vital PSH in Waterville over the next two years.

Our organization is proud of how we have responded during the pandemic, but we are not resting on our laurels. Key to our plans for growth is opening a new family shelter so that Colby Street can remain what it has been for almost two years: safe, low-barrier shelter that meets the needs of the most vulnerable. Making this change permanent will dramatically increase overall shelter capacity in Waterville.

We’ve done this work with little controversy for most of our history. We are frequently invited to apply for funding because we are always willing to step into the breach when called upon to do so. We work hard so that Waterville can be a place where the experience of homelessness is a rare, brief, and one-time event in a person’s life.

We aren’t there yet, but with planning, careful stewardship of resources, good use of data to drive performance, and a boundless desire to things better, hopefully we’ll get there soon.

Katie Spencer White is CEO of Mid-Maine Homeless Shelter & Services and member of the Maine Shelter Directors Network and the Statewide Homeless Council.

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