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Aroostook County Homeless Stakeholders collaborating on immediate solutions to address current crisis situation with homelessness in region

A group of community organizations that meet regularly to collaborate and find solutions for meeting the needs of individuals experiencing homelessness in The County are mobilizing to address what they are calling a crisis situation, unlike any the region has seen before.
The Aroostook County Homeless Stakeholder Group, convened by ACAP and comprised of social service agencies, healthcare organizations, public safety officers, faith-based community leaders, housing officials, among others, has seen an alarming increase in the number of individuals experiencing homelessness over the past few months. The situation, compounded by little or no remaining options to provide emergency overnight sheltering, has reached such a critical point that the group, two weeks ago, declared the situation a “crisis” and are in the process of implementing emergency measures.
In addition to the 20 or so residents currently housed at Homeless Services of Aroostook in Presque Isle, ACAP is supporting, through the Emergency Rental Assistance Program, 75 households (both individuals and families) living in hotel rooms across the region – mostly in Presque Isle and Caribou. With the winter tourism season bringing more visitors to the region, there is no additional hotel room availability.
“In my 13 years in this field I have never experienced this large a number of people experiencing homelessness and this great a challenge finding emergency overnight shelter,” said Heidi Rackliffe, Director of Programs at ACAP. “I have genuinely been concerned that people were going to freeze to death out in the elements because there was no place for them to get out of the cold at night.”
Rackliffe’s sentiments were echoed by many of the community stakeholders who came together virtually for the late January meeting of the Aroostook County Homeless Stakeholder Group. From local healthcare providers who shared the high volume of individuals experiencing homelessness, who are coming to their emergency rooms with no other place to go, to the police departments in both Caribou and Presque Isle sharing that they have had people sleep in their station lobbies to keep them out of the elements.
In true Aroostook County fashion, the stakeholder group began brainstorming ways to address the problem. The local cluster of Catholic churches in Central Aroostook is exploring using their church basement at the Holy Rosary Church in Caribou as a possible location to have individuals stay overnight when no other options are available. Other stakeholders have agreed to provide additional supports, including behavioral health services, to organizations sheltering individuals.
The most significant development to increase shelter bed availability goes into effect on Monday, February 7. A collaborative effort between Homeless Services of Aroostook, ACAP and MaineHousing will increasing the number of available emergency overnight beds at the Aroostook Bridge, beginning that night.
The shelter, which includes the more high-barrier unit on the upper level is designated to house families and individuals who are cleared to be in close proximity to children. The lower level of the shelter houses HSA’s Aroostook Bridge low-barrier shelter, which essentially serves as the emergency overnight shelter, accepting a wider range of individual residents. Throughout the pandemic, the Aroostook Bridge has been at capacity, while the family shelter on the second floor has often had additional space available.
Beginning this coming Monday, an additional emergency overnight shelter beds will open up at HSA when the facility temporarily transitions to a full emergency overnight shelter. To accommodate the additional emergency overnight residents, ACAP has agreed to provide day services for all shelter residents at the Hope and Prosperity Resource Center at nearby 1 Edgemont Drive, a block away from the shelter on the Skyway Industrial Park in Presque Isle. The facility regularly has an average of 10-15 residents from the shelter spend part of their day onsite working with staff at the facility to access services, find more permanent housing and connect with education and employment opportunities.
The HPRC hours will expand and number of attendees grow to include all residents of the shelter. The Center will be opened Monday through Friday from 8 am through 5 pm. The move will allow HSA to reassign staff to work overnight hours to better support the larger number staying at the shelter, and limited day staff at the building the opportunity to clean the facility and prepare dinner for the emergency overnight shelter residents. Lunch for residents will be served at the ACAP facility. Additional support to accommodate the additional residents at the shelter will be provided by MaineHousing.
“HSA is glad to put together a plan so that we can shelter more individuals that are currently in need in our communities,” said Lisa McLaughlin HSA CEO. “Community support is very important to us as we address the needs of our homeless population during these cold months.”
“This is a true example of many coming together to solve a community issue,” said Rackliffe. “This is not one entity solving an issue on their own, but rather proving just exactly what is
meant by ‘many hands make light the work.’ This is a result of people moving beyond fears and ‘what ifs’ to meet a dire community need and I couldn’t be more proud to see the end result.”
With a plan in place to provide the critical overnight and day services by HSA and ACAP, the Aroostook County Homeless Stakeholder Group is turning to the community to help support the effort. Additional volunteers and donations are needed including prepared meals and donations to support meal service to the larger number of individuals at both the HPRC day center and HSA overnight shelter. Individuals, businesses and organizations are all encouraged to join in meeting this community need and there are so many easy ways to be part of the solution. To volunteer your time, to prepare a meal or make a donation to HPRC contact Heidi Rackliffe at 207-554-4136 or hrackliffe@acap-me.org. To volunteer your time at HSA or support HSA directly contact the shelter at 207-762-6000 or director@aroostookhomeless.org.