ELLSWORTH, Maine — It’s been two decades since H.O.M.E. Inc. of Orland opened the Emmaus Homeless Shelter in the former federal building at the corner of Main and Water streets.

The shelter houses 350 people in its 25 beds each year, said Sister Lucille MacDonald, Emmaus’ director. It assists another 20,000 people annually with its programs to provide food, clothing, backpacks and school supplies, houseware, furniture and more.

MacDonald and representatives from the City Council and the Ellsworth Police Department describe the relationship between the city and the shelter as a good one, and the city’s General Assistance Department works closely with Emmaus to provide services for the needy.

It’s a point of pride for MacDonald that the shelter does its good work while going mostly unnoticed in Ellsworth’s busy downtown district.

“People ask me, ‘Where is the shelter?’” she said in a recent interview. “To me, that’s a good sign.”

It’s a stark departure from the dire prediction of many in Ellsworth in 1991, when plans for the shelter were first discussed, and in 1992, when it finally opened after a year fraught with residents fearful of how the facility would affect downtown Ellsworth and a City Council that sought to prevent the shelter’s opening. One councilor famously said the shelter would bring only “drunks and bums” to Ellsworth, and vowed to “do anything I can to fight it.”

A rocky start

In the early ’90s, MacDonald worked with another Sister of Mercy, Barbara Hance, at the St. Francis Inn in Orland, where she worked with H.O.M.E. and assisted the homeless in the small town near Bucksport. They began to notice that a large number of calls for help came from Ellsworth, and started to explore the possibility of opening a shelter there.

Ellsworth was beginning to see an increase in homeless numbers, said Lt. Harold Page of the Ellsworth Police Department recently. A program of de-institutionalization had begun in many of Maine’s mental health institutions, and as a result, many mentally handicapped individuals were ending up on the streets.

“At first there were a few, but not many,” Page said recently. “But it was the beginning of an influx of people coming in.”

MacDonald and others from H.O.M.E. got the OK from the federal government to open in the federal building vacated in 1991, but downtown merchants and City Hall fought the proposal, saying the shelter could “lead to the degeneration of the downtown area,” according to Bangor Daily News reports from that time.

Councilor Phil Shea, who since has passed away, made national headlines with his efforts to stop the shelter. When it became apparent that the city didn’t have much say about what happened in the federally owned building — thanks to the McKinney Homeless Assistance Act, which determines whether excess federal property is suitable for use as a homeless shelter — Shea cried foul.

“It’s not fair to downtown merchants and it’s not fair to the city,” Shea said in a May 1991 meeting. “Frankly, I’m disappointed that these bureaucrats can force this down our throats with no consideration for the citizens of Ellsworth.”

After a yearlong process involving a moratorium on homeless shelters downtown, the threat of a cease-and-desist order when Emmaus finally opened in February 1992, late-night calls to city councilors from homeless people in the city and a referendum question in which 60 percent of voters supported the shelter, the city finally relented and “legalized” the shelter in April 1992, thirteen months after H.O.M.E. first proposed it.

“They were associating us with what takes place at homeless shelters in more urban areas: people hanging in the streets, people being destructive,” MacDonald said recently. “We promised the city, when we went there, that we’d keep it safe and as invisible as possible.”

Gary Fortier had just joined the City Council around the time of the final vote that ended the row over the Emmaus Shelter and is still a councilor today. He cites the shelter’s strict rules and procedures for the success of Emmaus and the lack of friction with the city.

“It was another one of those growing pains, that as the community grew, there were certain needs that had to be filled,” he said. “I would suggest that if we have one homeless person in the city of Ellsworth, we’re not doing our job.”

The changing face of homelessness

Emmaus sees its mission as one of helping people get their lives back in order, not just providing temporary housing. Most people who stay at the shelter end up moving into an apartment when they leave. The shelter provides individuals and families with clothing, kitchenware and other necessities for starting a new life in a place of their own. It’s part of restoring the dignity that’s so often at a premium for the downtrodden.

Even the shelter’s name evokes the often faceless nature of homelessness, MacDonald said. According to the Bible, Jesus was on the road to the city of Emmaus after the resurrection, she said. On his way there, he ran into his disciples, who did not recognize him.

“As Jesus was not recognized, the homeless are not recognized,” she said. “People have a hard time putting a face on a homeless person.”

Today, 20 years after the shelter opened, MacDonald said that face is a changing one. More and more middle-class families are turning to Emmaus for services, she said, as the economy continues to sputter toward recovery. It’s no longer simply the poor and handicapped who are at risk for homelessness, she said.

“Middle-class people who had a home, probably a couple of cars, children who were doing well in school,” she said, “those are the people who are now on the fringe.”

That includes Lisa, 54, who is staying at Emmaus. She and other women declined to give their last names or be photographed, but shared their stories.

Lisa was laid off from a job as a home health care worker in Burlington, she said, “where there’s just no employment.”

She qualified for unemployment for 90 days, but was denied an extension, which left her unable to pay rent. Now she stays at Emmaus while working per diem in Ellsworth and attending Hancock County Technical Center to become a certified nurse.

“I don’t think people realize that this can happen to anyone,” she said.

Another woman, 36-year-old Cynarra, is staying at Emmaus with her husband and two children. Cynarra and her family were living at a central Maine hotel she and her husband managed. After losing the job, they were on the streets.

“We were in a tent for three weeks,” she said. “We stayed wherever we could.”

A family room opened at Emmaus, and Cynarra moved in with her family. Her husband found a job in Southwest Harbor, and she stays home with the kids. Next week, she says she will find out whether her family has been approved for a Section 8 housing voucher.

Another young woman, Jessica, is at Emmaus with her 7-month-old son. She fled an abusive relationship in Bangor and came to Ellsworth to be safe.

“Everyone is here for different reasons,” MacDonald said. “You can’t put one face on homelessness.”

A growing concern

Homelessness is a growing problem in Maine. According to Maine State Housing Authority surveys, 1,050 people were homeless in Maine on Jan. 25. In 2011, that number was 957. In 2010, it was 885. In April of 2004, the earliest time comparable data were available, the number was 633. That’s an increase of about 65 percent in eight years.

Emmaus said it shelters an average of 350 people per year, but that’s not the only way to measure the number served, MacDonald said. The shelter counts “bed nights,” a measure of occupancy that represents one person staying for one night. The bed night count for 2011 was 7,728, she said.

Ellsworth residents are familiar with the near-constant presence of a fundraising chart at Emmaus, the slowly filling thermometer representing how much the shelter needs to meet its funding goals. About one third of the shelter’s operating budget is funded by state and federal dollars, but the rest comes from donations and grants.

Fittingly, the shelter is celebrating its 20th anniversary with a fundraiser. Emmaus is selling ad space in an upcoming “20th Anniversary Remembrance Booklet” to sponsors at rates from $50 to $225. It’s also hosting an anniversary party at The Grand on Oct. 14.

MacDonald praised the city, its residents and local organizations for their continued support of Emmaus, despite the strained relationship in its formative year.

“Right now, over 20 years, the collaboration is phenomenal,” she said. “It’s turned 180 degrees. I know people are very proud we’re here, and we’re very grateful.”

Follow Mario Moretto on Twitter at @riocarmine.

Mario Moretto

Mario Moretto has been a Maine journalist, in print and online publications, since 2009. He joined the Bangor Daily News in 2012, first as a general assignment reporter in his native Hancock County and,...