SEARSMONT, Maine — The borrowed box of tangled strings of lights contained just three working strands, but veterans make do.

The Garry Owen House, a transitional shelter for homeless Maine veterans, celebrated its first Christmas on Saturday when about 30 supporters and residents munched on holiday cookies and decorated the house’s first Christmas tree.

The first resident moved in early this year after a whirlwind month in which volunteers revived a rundown house along Route 3 in Searsmont. Since then, 10 veterans have stayed there. On average, they stay for a little more than a month, and most have moved on after finding employment and a place of their own.

“They came with different stories about why they’re homeless,” said Lou Pelletier, president of the board. “Most of these guys were in the service for quite a few years.”

[This motorcycle club is on a mission to help homeless vets]

It can be tough for someone running into unexpected financial struggles, whether it be the result of a divorce or a layoff, to keep their feet under them, said Alex Allmayer-Beck, executive director of Garry Owen House.

Several residents ran into financial problems, going through a divorce or life events that “wiped them out financially,” such as a layoff, Allmayer-Beck said.

Three veterans are staying at the house now. One is away at military training for the month and plans on staying at the shelter briefly when he returns while he looks for another place to live.

Steve Cowles was the first veteran to stay at Garry Owen House in January. He said he found himself with nowhere to go after a divorce and with little money to find a new place. He’s spent two stints at the Garry Owen House earlier this year as he saved up money for an apartment, and now he is living in Ellsworth, where he hopes to start lobstering again in the spring.

“It’s like $2,000 to get into a place nowadays because everyone wants a security deposit and first month’s rent, plus fees,” Cowles said.

His stays in the house gave him the time he needed to save up for a place of his own and buy time until fishing picks up.

“There’s a whole lot of people in the country in the same boat I was, and even more just one paycheck away from it,” Cowles added.

Allmayer-Beck said that area churches and charitable organizations have been generous, supplying bedding, towels and other house supplies, but the Garry Owen House still needs help.

It costs $20,000 to $25,000 a year to run the house, which will soon be in need of a new furnace and new windows. Allmayer-Beck said the house needs donations, as it relies entirely on private contributions and doesn’t get federal or state grants.

Ultimately, if the number of residents and demand for space grows, organizers would like to expand on their current site, or find a second property, possibly opening a location for female veterans.

Garry Owen House is a nonprofit organization that operates separately from the Garry Owen Motorcycle Club. The nonprofit group was formed because the bike club that pushed the concept to fruition wasn’t eligible for federal nonprofit status.

For more information, or to donate, visit

Follow Nick McCrea on Twitter at @nmccrea213.

Follow the Bangor Daily News on Facebook for the latest Maine news.