Blake Hatt, chief operations officer for The Northern Lighthouse Inc., takes visitors on a tour through the Safe Harbor youth shelter in Mars Hill on July 13. Credit: Paula Brewer / The Star-Herald

MARS HILL, Maine — When Safe Harbor opens next month, it will become Aroostook County’s first shelter for homeless youths.

The Northern Lighthouse Inc., a countywide agency offering mental and behavioral health therapy for youths and adults, will operate Safe Harbor Shelter in Mars Hill.

Homelessness in Maine reached record numbers earlier this year, counting nearly 3,500 homeless people in January. While many shelters take adults and families, youths who are alone have had to seek housing 150 miles away or more in Bangor, Portland or Lewiston, taking them away from school, friends and everything that’s familiar. The new shelter will let them stay in Aroostook County.

A crowd gathers outside the Safe Harbor youth shelter in Mars Hill for a July 13 open house. The Northern Lighthouse Inc. hopes to open the shelter’s doors to youth in need next month. Credit: Paula Brewer / The Star-Herald

Blake Hatt, Lighthouse chief operations officer, said his eyes were opened to the problem when he attended a community consortium on youth homelessness sometime before the COVID-19 outbreak. He had heard that homeless youths were couch surfing or being helped by community members because they had nowhere else to go other than down state.

“Our homeless population is growing very rapidly in Aroostook County,” he said during an open house Wednesday at Safe Harbor. “There are services that support homeless families and homeless adults. Youth homelessness has been around for many years but has flown under the radar.”

Lighthouse received a $200,000 federal renewable grant earlier this year from the Family and Youth Services Bureau to construct the Safe Harbor youth shelter, located in part of the Mars Hill Northern Lighthouse therapy and residential treatment facility.

Inside the renovated space, there are two rooms with two beds each, along with a living area. Organizers decided to start small and just fill the needs first, but they intend to grow in the future, Hatt said.

One of two rooms at Safe Harbor in Mars Hill. The County’s first shelter for homeless youth, Safe Harbor is expected to open its doors next month. Credit: Paula Brewer / The Star-Herald

The goal is to keep local youths in Aroostook County, where they can stay in their communities and continue attending school, he said.

Northern Lighthouse co-founder Linda Guiggey and her husband Melvin have been helping local kids for more than 20 years.

The couple started the Northern Lighthouse in 2000 as a home for teenage girls. They were foster parents faced with changing state rules limiting the number of kids and how long they could house them in a private home.

The Guiggeys sold their home and moved into another one close by, turning their former home into the first Northern Lighthouse site.

Both of their daughters work with them. The agency has a large main office in Presque Isle, the Mars Hill facility and other locations in Caribou and Houlton. More than 100 employees offer addiction treatment, therapy, case management and other services to adults and children.  

The Northern Lighthouse co-founder Linda Guiggey (right) talks with a visitor July 13 an an open house for Safe Harbor in Mars Hill. The facility is Aroostook County’s first shelter for homeless youth. Credit: Paula Brewer / The Star-Herald

But as Maine’s homeless crisis has worsened and abuse, addiction and mental illness have become more prevalent in recent years, there are youths who literally have nowhere to turn.

The new shelter is a fitting extension of the Lighthouse’s mission, Guiggey said. The need is here and will keep growing, so it’s important that youth have a place to be safe and feel at home without traveling 150 miles or farther.

“It isn’t what you take from this world, it’s what you leave behind,” she said. “When I leave this world, I want to be able to say I left a legacy for my children.”

The Safe Harbor shelter will open its doors officially sometime in August. For information, visit the Northern Lighthouse’s website.