ELLSWORTH — Since the opening of a homeless shelter earlier this year, both business owners and people needing help seem to be resting easier.
The Emmaus Center opened in downtown Ellsworth in February, amid speculation that it might scare off shoppers, become an eyesore, or provide safe haven for rowdies, deadbeats and criminals.
The opening followed a yearlong battle between the shelter’s founders and the City Council, with one local official warning on national television that the place would attract “bums.”
But the facility funded largely by donations has proven to be as quiet as the political debate was noisy. Local police say there has been little trouble at the shelter, and neighboring business owners seem to agree.
Echoing a typical sentiment is Rachel Jack, owner of Coastal Carpet, the only business located right next door. “There were a couple of minor little problems at first,” said Jack. “When it was warm weather, they (the residents) would stand outside and smoke their cigarettes. But it really hasn’t been a problem. They’ve been a good neighbor.”
When the shelter has shown up on police logs, it has usually been in regard to complaints such as one resident taking another’s clothes.
Judi and Ralph Goodenough, the shelter’s new managers, say they also heard of problems occurring before they started work five weeks ago. They say even those troubles were minor, and they hope to build on the efforts of volunteers who kept the shelter going in the period between the departure of Sister Juanita Robichaud, and their own arrival as the new managers in October.
Robichaud left to return to her religious order, saying a woman in her 60s was too old for the demanding job of running the shelter. Along with Sister Barbara Hance and others of the Orland-based Homemakers Organized for More Employment (H.O.M.E.) organization, Robichaud led the effort to obtain the old federal post office building that is now the shelter.
In its nine months of operation, the 20-bed Emmaus Center has housed 153 individuals, including 20 families. Single men, battered women, and sometimes frightened children all have stayed, yet the majority of the people in residence earlier this week were young adults with Hancock County connections. They were either between jobs or out of work.
Some have tried to stay with friends or family members only to have those arrangements deteriorate rapidly. The depth of misfortune varies widely, and many prefer a little time or help in getting on their feet.
A local woman who asked not to be identified said she came to the shelter after leaving a troubled relationship.
“It’s saved my life, really. I was in a situation that otherwise would have destroyed me. Being here has given me strength enough to do what I had to do. Probably if I were staying somewhere else, I would just have gone back to the relationship. I have no family here.”
That is, except for her 6-year-old daughter. The little girl ran into the kitchen one afternoon this week to give Judi a hug. She sat down at the table to draw, then later brought in a certificate she received as a “student of the week” at school.
“She’s been a real strength to me,” the woman said of her lively daughter. “She’s totally optimistic, and she loves it here.”
The woman believes she is about to get an apartment she can afford. Although she has been comfortable at the shelter, she looks forward to being back on her own, like most people who stay, the Goodenoughs say.
Others at the shelter are in less dire situations. One young man on the way to visiting relatives on Mount Desert Island was in a car accident while traveling cross-country. After recovering from his injuries, he needed a new job and immediately looked into a caretaker position he heard about after coming to the shelter. His prospects looked good earlier this week.
Still others have used the shelter as a resource rather than a residence.
An Ohio man who comes to New England each year to dig clams, rake blueberries, and collect wreath greens asked to take a shower at the shelter, then left behind a donation.
A Blue Hill man who apparently felt sleepy on his way home during a long car trip asked if he could nap at the shelter. Judi and Ralph were glad to help.
After working for several years at Lutheran ministry facilities including a shelter in Washington, D.C., the Goodenoughs believe this work is their calling.
Her mother’s death in August helped convince Judi to make a move from the city. Judi informed her supervisor of her wish to live in New England, preferably in Maine. Problem was, the Goodenoughs had no particular job prospects here at the time.
After a chance contact with a coordinator at H.O.M.E., Judi wrote to Sister Barbara Hance, and then came to Ellsworth with Ralph on vacation. As soon as they saw the area, the couple decided to work here. They prefer shelters to social agency work, where “love is not part of the job description. We want to be innkeepers,” Ralph says.
According to Judi, the challenge is poverty and helping people deal with it.” Finding people jobs and housing are their primary goals, as is helping fight substance abuse. In Washington, the drug of choice was crack. Here, it is alcohol. To Judi’s mind, substance addictions are a predictable outgrowth of poverty.
Because people’s problems can be complex, and it takes time to hook them up with services, the Goodenoughs say they cannot comply with a local ordinance setting the maximum shelter stay at five days. It usually takes one to two weeks to get help from agencies such as HUD for housing, or for people to find jobs, they say.
They hope the city’s present tolerant attitude will continue.