Sister Mary O' Donnell Shelter now owned by Homeless Services of Aroostook and provides transitional housing. Credit: Paul Bagnall / The Star-Herald

PRESQUE ISLE, Maine — Aroostook County Action Program and the only homeless shelter north of Bangor have established a warming center to handle the overflow of people experiencing homelessness in The County.

A task force of multiple social service agencies, city officials and lawmakers held a community briefing in mid-November to discuss how to serve people experiencing homelessness. Homeless Services of Aroostook and ACAP are using American Rescue Plan Act funding received from county commissioners in mid-November to establish the warming shelter, which opened in November and will continue through April at Sister Mary O’Donnell Shelter in Presque Isle.

Homelessness is a growing problem in Aroostook County and social service agencies have had to be creative about finding housing for people experiencing it, including placement in area hotels.

“Our focus was on keeping Aroostook’s homeless population safe and warm during the winter months, and the [ACAP board] task force explored 20 different vacancies since its convening,” said Homeless Task Force chair Sen. Trey Stewart, R-Presque Isle. 

As of Dec. 7, there were 42 people receiving homeless services at the Sister Mary O’Donnell Shelter, including 18 at the Aroostook Bridge, which is a transition program to more permanent housing. A typical night sees one to two people using some of the 13 beds available in the new warming shelter.

The idea to set up the warming center on a first-come, first-served basis in the O’Donnell Shelter’s dining area came from Homeless Services CEO Lisa McLaughlin and board members Chris Carol and Dee Clark.

It was uncharted territory for the homeless shelter that would house 10 people in the warming shelter overnight. One-dish meals are provided for breakfast and dinner, with access to the building’s shower.

“[ACAP and Homeless Services] are working together for the better of the people who are unhoused in the homeless population and I really appreciate that,” McLaughlin said.

When the warming shelter first opened on Nov. 17, one person stayed overnight and the number of people using the facility has continued to grow since. Although the 10 bedrolls that are part of the shelter hadn’t arrived by the time it opened, the Aroostook Veterans Alliance Group donated a couple of sleeping bags to the cause.

At most, the homeless shelter has had three people use the warming shelter at a time and have been able to move some of them into their Aroostook Bridge Program or in the O’Donnell Shelter. Additional staffing will be employed at the O’Donnell homeless shelter to help with the extra people being housed there.

If all of the Homeless Services’ regular and warming shelter beds fill up, ACAP will offer its Hope and Prosperity Resource Center — where they plan to build apartments for low income residents next year — for any overflow up to 30 people.

Only one person was refused shelter at Sister Mary’s due to their background, but McLaughlin declined to comment further.

“We understand that [people experiencing homelessness] have a background, or that they have some issues, but our goal is to shelter people for the night and hopefully if we have a bed open we can transition them,” McLaughlin said.

ACAP initiated the task force in September 2022 after months of not finding a viable solution to the problem of not enough emergency shelter to house The County’s growing homeless population. The task force has met every Thursday since to discuss solutions.

Task force members include Homeless Services, county commissioners, Presque Isle city councilors, leaders of the Catholic Church Parish of the Precious Blood in Caribou, Northern Light Health Cary Medical Center and Aroostook Agency on Aging. Its discussions have included the zoning board and other municipal leaders in Presque Isle, Gov. Janet Mills’ office, Maine Housing Authority and Maine Office of State Fire Marshal while the group examines options for spaces to house people experiencing homelessness.

“We set out with this goal back in September when we realized this problem wasn’t going anywhere and we had to do something before winter came,” Stewart said. “Today, as I’m looking out my window here in Presque Isle and seeing a blanket of snow and more on the way, the timing couldn’t be better.”

Local officials even looked into using the National Guard station for an overflow shelter. Although Mills would not have to declare a state of emergency for the National Guard station to be used as an overflow shelter, there are planning and other considerations, according to Anthony Ronzio, deputy director of the Governor’s Office of Policy Innovation and the Future.

The governor and her administration are continuing to examine options to ensure people and families have a safe place to be for the winter, including extending emergency temporary housing supports — especially for those most vulnerable and at the greatest risk of experiencing homelessness, Ronzio said.

The warming shelter is open from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. seven days a week. ACAP will operate the Hope and Prosperity Resource Center from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday to offer support for employment, housing, health care and other community services.