Homeless Services of Aroostook will buy this building at 161 Airport Drive in Presque Isle to expand services, thanks to a state grant. Credit: Courtesy of Lisa McLaughlin

PRESQUE ISLE, Maine — Homeless Services of Aroostook will receive more than half a million dollars to buy a building and expand its services.

The Presque Isle organization is among 17 agencies in Maine, and the only one in Aroostook County, to receive a MaineHousing grant to help craft long-term solutions for people without housing.

Lack of affordable housing has driven homelessness up in Aroostook County, according to Aroostook Homeless Stakeholders, a local group working to help people who are homeless. This winter, the region’s only shelter turned its dining room into a warming center to accommodate the overflow of people in need.

By expanding services and space, Homeless Services intends to offer more resources to help people find a better way to live.

“We’ve taken in, in the warming shelter alone, nearly 70 people since Nov. 17,” said Lisa McLaughlin, chief executive officer of Homeless Services of Aroostook. “And those are the people that would have been out in the cold because there was no space.”

The organization learned last week that it would receive a $555,000 grant from MaineHousing’s Long-Term Solutions to Assist People Experiencing Homelessness program. It will use the funds to buy an empty building at 161 Airport Drive, next to the Sister Mary O’Donnell shelter, McLaughlin said.

aroostook homelessness solutions

Renovations will create two family rooms, administrative offices and a large space where shelter residents can access a computer and attend group meetings, McLaughlin said. Construction is expected to begin soon and finish by October.

The building will cost $155,000. Homeless Services will use the remaining $400,000 to outfit the building for habitation, which will involve installing sprinkler systems, a generator for power backup, energy-efficient heat pumps and a new roof, along with new floors and bathrooms. The grant won’t cover administrative office setup but will provide furnishings for the housing sections, McLaughlin said.

The building is the former site of Aroostook Testing and Consulting Laboratories, which has moved to another site on the Presque Isle Industrial Park. Homeless Services has been trying to expand services, and when the building came up for sale, the group applied for a grant.

The building will include a permanent winter warming shelter to accommodate about 15 people, which would be open from Dec. 1 until April 1, she said.

“We have pretty much been full this winter. We were packed,” McLaughlin said. “We folded up the table, opened up our dining area this winter and [put] a warming shelter in our dining room.”

Winter weather prompted communities all over the state to set up warming shelters.

Bangor’s homeless situation has reached crisis proportions, and most recently the city approved a $200,000 Community Development Block Grant to help the Penquis Community Action Program buy a former Bangor inn to be turned into housing for the  homeless.

MaineHousing awarded more than $16 million in state grants for 17 different housing and shelter projects across Maine. The funding comes from Gov. Janet Mills’ Winter Emergency Energy Relief Plan and will serve more than 500 additional homeless people statewide, MaineHousing said.

aroostook youth homeless services

The projects include new shelters, housing units and warming centers. Other spaces will serve pregnant women, at-risk youth and domestic violence survivors who are homeless.

Since McLaughlin was hired by Homeless Services of Aroostook about two years ago, the number of employees has grown from eight to 18 and the shelter has more than doubled the number of people it can take in. The organization no longer rents the homeless shelter from Northern Maine Community College, since the college donated the building last year.

The shelter has about 47 beds, although there have been around 55 people in the building at times this winter, including in the warming room, according to McLaughlin.  

She looks forward to having additional housing areas, which would allow elderly people or families with children to be housed separately for privacy. New meeting and work spaces will allow Homeless Services to help more people recover from addiction, financial crisis or whatever situations they face.

Sister Mary O’Donnell, a Catholic nun at St. Mary’s Church in Presque Isle, founded the Homeless Shelter more than 40 years ago. She never would have imagined the addiction problems people have now, but that’s simply where a lot of people are today, McLaughlin said.

Homeless Service’s end goal is not only to feed the hungry and shelter those who have no homes, but to help people move on to a productive, healthy life.  

“If you look into the eyes of somebody that has an addiction problem, and their eyes well up with tears and they say, ‘I don’t want to live life like this anymore,’ you know that it’s worth it — that one person you can help save,” she said.