Donors help Preble Street replace funds revoked by diocese

PORTLAND – Gay activists from around the nation are sending checks to Preble Street to replace funding that the Catholic Church withdrew from the agency’s Homeless Voices for Justice program.

The agency’s director said that since Wednesday, about 150 new donors have given nearly $10,000 to Preble Street, which provides a range of services to the homeless and the poor.

Homeless Voices for Justice lost $17,400 for this fiscal year when the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland and the Washington-based Catholic Campaign for Human Development canceled their grants because of Preble Street’s support for same-sex marriage in last fall’s statewide referendum.

Church officials say Preble Street’s support violated its grant agreements. The diocese, which organized the campaign to overturn Maine’s law to allow same-sex marriage, requires grant recipients to avoid taking political stands that are contrary to church positions.

Although Preble Street officials are pleased with the new donations, they say it will be difficult to find long-term financial support for Homeless Voices for Justice.

For the past 13 years, the Catholic Campaign for Human Development has been a major contributor. Its annual donations amounted to half of the program’s budget, said Mark Swann, executive director of Preble Street. The rest came from private donors.

The Catholic group revoked half of its $30,000 grant for the year ending June 30, costing Preble Street $15,000. The first half of the grant had already been spent.

In addition, the Portland diocese asked Preble Street to return $2,400. Swann sent the check last month.

News stories about cancellation of the grants have been posted on Facebook pages and gay Web sites around the country, including the Advocate, the largest gay and lesbian publication in the country.

On the Web site Ex-Gay Watch, which opposes groups that claim that being gay is wrong or a sin, editor David Roberts urged readers to donate to Preble Street.

"Those who depend on (the program) lost something because of their stand for our rights," he wrote. "Helping to make up that shortfall is one way to make this right.

" Maura McKenney, 45, a student at the Bangor Theological Seminary, wrote a $25 check to Preble Street on Wednesday morning, right after she read the story in the Portland Press Herald.

"It was so shocking to me," she said. "It’s not religion or spirituality. It’s politics."

Homeless Voices for Justice, led by people who have been homeless, advocates for legislation and policies that affect the poor. It has chapters in Portland, Brunswick, Augusta, Lewiston and York. Preble Street gives it free space in its Portland office.

Swann said it’s difficult to find steady funding for an advocacy group. "There is really not a lot out there to support that kind of work," he said.

Dee Clarke, 52, of Portland, who has been homeless for years and is now a leader of Homeless Voices for Justice, said the group operates independently of Preble Street. But because the process for becoming a nonprofit is so difficult, her group has used Preble Street’s nonprofit status to apply for grants.

She said Homeless Voices did not take a position on same-sex marriage.

"It’s too bad people wanted to punish one group and we got hurt," Clarke said.

She said Homeless Voices for Justice is trying to secure a funding source. One idea is to become recognized as a nonprofit by the Internal Revenue Service.

Besides cash donations, Clarke said, she’s hoping that somebody might provide legal help to enable the group to become a nonprofit.

Sue Bernard, spokeswoman for the diocese, said it had received about 45 e-mails on the issue since Wednesday. She said the writers were divided. Some were angry, but others said the church was right to enforce its agreement with Preble Street.

In Preble Street’s application for the grant, Swann wrote "no" when asked if his organization promotes or advocates same-sex marriage.

Bernard said some who sent e-mails recognized the church’s legal rights. For example, she said, one wrote, "We understand what happened. If you break an agreement, what do you expect?"

Bernard said many charities compete for funds from the church.

"Others didn’t get the money, but Preble Street did and broke the contract," she said. "We can’t turn our back on our own core values."

Bernard said the diocese plans to give the $2,400 to another group, My Sister’s Keeper Interfaith, a grass-roots ministry that focuses on helping women in the Cumberland County Jail.

Swann was pleased when told the news, calling My Sister’s Keeper "a good and very quality organization."

Staff Writer Tom Bell can be contacted at 791-6369 or at: