Homeless women to get shelter in Portland

PORTLAND-Huddled in the freezing cold in a dark alleyway the 25 or so people who stood on a barren, snow-covered parking lot could have been mistaken for a gathering of homeless people.

Instead, the group of homeless advocates, which included Gov. John Baldacci, spent a few minutes Tuesday night reflecting on their four-year-long effort to bring a women’s homeless shelter to Maine’s largest city.

Officials said the $7.9 million Florence House project will provide permanent and temporary housing for up to 50 women once it opens – by the end of this year or early next year.

Construction of the shelter on a parcel between St. John and Valley streets is expected to begin next week.

Avesta Housing will build the shelter, and Preble Street will staff and run it.

"Tonight, we wanted to pause to recognize the hope for these 50 women this shelter means" said Dana Totman, chief executive officer of Avesta Housing. "This was arguably the most complex affordable housing project ever done in the state of Maine, and possibly the country. But I dare say, it could be the most heartwarming."

Mark Swann, director of Preble Street, said Preble Street has provided temporary overnight shelter for the city’s 40 or so homeless women since the city’s YWCA closed two years ago. Preble Street recognized it had to do something because homeless women were being forced to seek refuge at the Oxford Street men’s shelter.

"The loss of the YWCA and the semi-independent living units it provided has been very hard to overcome" Swann said.

Swann said Florence House should help fill that need, by providing 25 units of permanent housing and 15 units for women suffering from mental illness. The shelter will also have another 10 emergency, overnight beds.

"We are going to be taking these women and moving them from a mattress on a floor to a warm, comfortable bed." added Elaine Rosen, chairman of Preble Street’s Board of Directors.

Dee Clarke, a former homeless woman, cheered during Tuesday night’s ceremony.

"Most neighborhoods don’t want this type of housing. Look at all of you. You did it. You moved the mountain. " Clarke said.