The Mansion Church at 96 Center St., which serves as a warming center. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

In early September, Josh Shuahacker, 43, left McCook, Nebraska, with his family for Maine, where they hoped to find more job opportunities. What they found instead were unaffordable housing costs.

Shuahacker, his 4-year-old daughter, and his mother-in-law, Tracy Jefferson, stayed in a rented camper in a Hudson campground but knew they couldn’t stay long. The camper had faulty heat, a leaking ceiling, black mold and a weak floor.

“We’re grateful to [the campground] because they helped us out, but we couldn’t stay there,” Shuahacker said. “We wouldn’t have survived the cold snap when it was 50 below. Staying in that camper would’ve killed us.”

The family came to Bangor, where they lived in a pickup truck for about a week until they were directed to the Mansion Church, which operates a nightly warming center during the winter for those without shelter.

It was a turning point for Shuahacker and his family. Now he is one of several former guests who volunteers at the shelter.

The church has hosted more than 100 homeless people since it began offering a warming center in March 2020 as the COVID-19 pandemic forced shelters to reduce their capacity. Since then, it has had a front row seat to the city’s housing and homelessness crisis.

The church offers guests a warm place to rest, a hot dinner and breakfast and access to a shower and laundry. The church also has donated clothing, coats and shoes for those in need.

Some volunteers at the church also help connect people with local resources that can provide housing and health care or meet other needs.

A core group of about 10 people typically stay at the warming center each night, but as many as 25 people will spend the night in the church during especially cold or wet nights, Mansion Church Pastor Terry Dinkins said.

helping bangor’s homeless

Though the family spent each night at the Mansion Church, time was ticking to find permanent housing by the end of March when the warming center ends, Shuahacker said.

“We had a great caseworker and kept up on all our paperwork because I didn’t want to be out on the streets at the end of the month,” he said. “We got lucky — it doesn’t usually happen that fast.”

In early February, the family was introduced to a caseworker from Community Health and Counseling Services, a local nonprofit, who arranged for them to receive an income-based housing voucher that allows the family to pay about 30 percent of their monthly income in rent. This means they pay about $61 to rent their new apartment on Essex Street in Bangor.

“In Bangor’s rental market — or just about anywhere — that’s amazing,” Shuahacker said.

On Feb. 9, the family left the Mansion Church and moved into their new home, but Shuahacker and Jefferson soon returned to the church to volunteer. Each of them spends about one night each week supervising the center overnight.

“They helped us, and we want to pay it forward,” Shuahacker said. “Right now, the Mansion Church needs volunteers, especially on the overnight shifts.”

Shuahacker and Jefferson aren’t the only prior guests of the Mansion Church who volunteer. Four of the warming center’s roughly 10 volunteers previously stayed in the warming center when they didn’t have housing, Dinkins said.

Having stayed at the warming center recently gives Shuahacker and Jefferson an advantage when it comes to supervising the center’s guests because they know many guests’ backstories and how to address certain people if a problem arises.

“When one person, for instance, has schizophrenia, and when he gets upset, the best way to calm him down is to make him a cup of coffee,” he said.

helping bangor’s homeless

Jeffrey Mercier of Bangor, another Mansion Church volunteer who used the warming center last winter when he didn’t have housing for about a year, serves food at the center each night.

“It warms my heart to see them give back and it shows me that they appreciated the warming center,” Dinkins said. “This year I’ve had the most volunteers out of any other year, and hopefully next year we’ll get the same response.”

Shuahacker said the best thing about gaining permanent housing was the privacy and freedom it brought his family.

“And not having to keep a young child as quiet as possible after a certain time at night is nice too,” he said.

During the day, Shuahacker is a stay-at-home father who is working to get a valid identification card after his expired.

When he’s issued a new ID, Shuahacker said he wants to participate in the Maine Department of Health and Human Services’ ASPIRE Program, which helps families receiving temporary financial assistance move toward financial independence through case management, job training, education, support and employment services.

Shuahacker said he’d like to eventually become certified to teach English as a second language.

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Kathleen O'Brien

Kathleen O'Brien is a reporter covering the Bangor area. Born and raised in Portland, she joined the Bangor Daily News in 2022 after working as a Bath-area reporter at The Times Record. She graduated from...