It is a team effort when extreme temperatures such as the bitter cold expected over the weekend come to this western Maine town of 5,500 people.
About an hour’s drive northwest of Portland, Bridgton doesn’t have as many services or overnight shelters as the larger cities in the state. It has one warming center at the community center during the daytime.
Otherwise, the town uses a network of churches, hotels and shelters in other towns to find sustained warmth for people in need. It is not just for those who are unhoused. Folks may need a temporary place to stay after a power outage or may not have enough money to fill oil tanks. A large portion of the people using the community center have a regular residence.
Those needing shelter overnight are handled on a case-by-case basis, whether it is Bridgton police providing rides to Norway, Lewiston or Portland or officers letting people just stay in their cruiser for a while.
“It just puts us all together trying to figure out things as we go,” Police Chief Phil Jones said. “Someone is always willing to help.”
Part of the challenge is that rural areas get less funding for resources like warming shelters, Darcey Pomerleau, executive director of the Bridgton Community Center, said. Still, the center does what it can to help people experiencing homelessness who come in to get warm, referring them to longer term services in Portland and other areas.
People come to the community center for warmth, a meal, showers, internet, phone-charging and to socialize. Many make arrangements to stay with family or friends overnight. The center also has hats, scarves, mittens and some coats offered for free. This weekend it also will have hot soup, courtesy of a local restaurant.
The center is reaching out through its website, Facebook and the town to educate people on how to keep their pipes from freezing. It also plans to offer information in the spring and fall for people who moved to Bridgton from another state on how to prepare for a Maine winter.
Local churches also provide warm clothing, food and some money to buy fuel. They also try to find overnight accommodations where needed. Many times, people randomly show up asking for help.
“We’re a last resort at times,” Pastor Mike Zullo of the Bridgton Alliance Church said. “Resources are so limited that we really can’t help people as much as we want to.”
Jones is concerned about the severity of the temperatures this weekend, which are supposed to drop below zero for extended periods. Rural Mainers tend to be self-sufficient and timid, and may tough it out rather than ask for help, he said.
“With those sub zero temperatures, there are not enough blankets in the world to really warm you up. You need to be in a warm place with a source of heat,” he said.
If you need help finding a warming center this weekend, check the Maine Emergency Management Agency website or dial 211 for assistance. You also can check MaineHousing’s website, which has a list of emergency and overnight locations.