PORTLAND, Maine — It’s 6 p.m. Saturday and a cross section of Portlanders stream into 15 Boynton St., entering the Dreamship.

Some bring plates of food or have instruments slung over their backs. A few saunter in and flop down in chairs. Others gather around a kitchen island heaped with pasta and salads.

Host Tina Smith jumps up frequently to greet each new arrival. With a hug and a “Hey, good to see you,” she sets the laid-back, positive tone of the monthly potluck open mic.

This isn’t an underground club, or speakeasy. There is no password or special knock to enter. But those that do find their way to the glorified garage share common goals: fun, food and fellowship.

“It’s a gathering place where people can get together,” said Elijah Tresor, an African immigrant who has lived in Portland less than a year and has performed here twice. “That’s how we connect in life.”

The stage for the evening’s entertainment doubles as a living room for the 12 people, two dogs, one cat and two guinea pigs that call the Dreamship home. The tenants, neighbors, friends, artists, musicians and poets that come and go extend this cooperative community. At the most, 16 people have lived here.

Six years ago when Smith, a slam poet and community organizer, moved into the downtown Portland domicile between Park Avenue and Congress Street, she “saw so much potential.”

Originally built as the city’s horse barn in the 1800s, it’s served as artist studios, an autobody shop and a single family home over the years. In 2010, it became the Dreamship: a safe, sober and affordable place to live.

For people like Matthew Baker, who lived here years ago while going through a divorce, the Dreamship was a life raft, offering much more than shelter.

“It showed me there are caring people,” the 39-year-old massage therapist said. “I felt in the flow.”

Like many who climb aboard the Dreamship for a spell, he learned about this egalitarian, holistic community by word of mouth.

The address has been a refuge for musicians on tour, yoga instructors, herbalists, fishermen, massage therapists, those looking to get back on their feet after the curveballs of life. And, in this city of punishing rents, it’s one solution to the housing crisis. People can live in the Dreamship for about $400 per month, including utilities. If they want to partake in a food share, they fork over $20 per week for fruits, vegetables, olive oil and other kitchen staples.

The dozen people who live here range in age from 22 to 59. And no surprise there is a waiting list.

What is the dream they share? To live simply, create a safe environment and “have an intentional community that prospers,” Smith, 38, said.

“Dreamship Community is one venue for practicing generosity and moving away from being completely self occupied,” said Smith’s wife, Jeanette Richelson, who has lived here for two years. “There will always be confusion and conflict in our world, in our community, but the importance and the magic lies in how we deal with confusion and conflict. Living at Dreamship teaches me every day how to be a more compassionate, open and a willing human being.”

The brightly painted space with an elevated library loft with skylights, two bathrooms (one with a claw-footed tub) nine bedrooms and a separate refrigerator for vegans is a warm, enveloping vessel in a sea of uncertainty.

There are ground rules: no drinking. A cleaning checklist tacked to the kitchen wall determines whose turn it is to dust the living room and take out the trash. Through hand-written signs and posters, people are encouraged to live with a low carbon footprint, recycle and support Bernie Sanders. Amid the Buddha sculptures, self-discovery books and faint whiff of wheatgrass, the vibe is hostel meets ashram.

“It’s like a healthier version of the communes of the ’70s,” said Smith’s mother, Gail Smith, who moved in when the recession hit and “jobs were scarce.”

“Living here is a test in growth and change,” admitted the eldest resident, who mixes with the former lobsterman who lives on the first floor and the writer and musician twentysomethings without morphing into a den mother.

Knowing the haven that the Dreamship has become, makes her smile.

“I couldn’t be prouder,” she said of her daughter’s efforts. “She’s always been creative, but what’s going on here is much deeper than what’s obvious.”

One thing that was obvious, amid the jovial party scene last weekend, residents were pitching in, doing dishes, offering drinks (the strongest beverage consumed was cold chaga tea) swapping compliments and digging into healthy heapings of kale and potato salad.

“There are so many places to party in Portland, I wanted to do something different,” said Tina Smith, who has a rent to own lease with the property owner and runs the home as an “inter-generational conscious-living community. It’s important to keep progressing.”

The Dreamship has been steady for six years. Smith’s future plans call for a rural farmstead that may have a similar model. Members would grow and harvest their own vegetables and work toward a more sustainable cooperative living dynamic.

For now the Dreamship feels like a mellow “Real World” minus the backstabbing drama queens. Writer Dan White, who has called the Dreamship home for a year and a half, says the best thing about living here is “the feeling of safety.”

As White prepares to move to Albany, New York, this spring, he knows it will be hard to duplicate the “welcoming feeling and deep level of security” he experienced at the Dreamship.

Similarly, Baker, who moved out a while ago and is about to get married again, returns to be immersed in that aura.

”I loved the cast of characters that came through the space and found a very welcoming community,” he said.

Impromptu group bike rides through the city, pontificating with a “9/11 conspiracy theorist” who cycled through gave him a sense of belonging when he needed it most.

For post-college grads who strike out to Portland from other parts of the state, Maine’s largest city has barriers.

“It’s so hard to find affordable housing here,” said Audrey Maddox, 24, who moved into the Dreamship after graduating from the University of Maine. “You can spend months looking for housing. It’s really a great resource.”

After three months she found lodgings with a garden, but she was back in the living room listening to poetry.

“People try to be compassionate and supportive here,” she said.

Though privacy is minimized, you don’t have to be an extrovert to live the dream.

Gabriel Bachman, who lived alone most of his adult life, said the Dreamship “is therapeutic.” Living in such close quarters with strangers “has improved my ability to be more social,” he said.

His fellow housemates are interested in improving their quality of life, not as a selfish pursuit, but collectively, together.

“A common factor here is a willingness to work with 10 other people,” he said.

The drawbacks?

“It’s a given you are going to have bathroom issues.”

For the city’s newest immigrants like Tresor, the Dreamship is a place “to relax and have fun with people.”

The Democratic Republic of Congo native arrived in Portland 11 months ago and doesn’t live here. But like many who find their way to this sanctuary of sanity, he feels right at home. Taking the ad hoc stage to perform a few songs in his sunny African lilt, the self-described, well-dressed minister addressed the room: “Love is not about being with someone just because they have money, but don’t treat you right.”

Looking around, the silent, patient crowd nodded knowingly. When the song was over, they cheered him on. And the next person stepped up to take his place.

Kathleen Pierce

A lifelong journalist with a deep curiosity for what's next. Interested in food, culture, trends and the thrill of a good scoop. BDN features reporter based in Portland since 2013.