Dignitaries celebrate new home for women in Portland

PORTLAND – Hundreds of people gathered June 4 on Valley Street to celebrate the opening of Florence House, the city’s second "Housing First" project.

Florence House is home to 25 formerly homeless women and provides a short-term place for up to 40 more women to transition into permanent housing or stay in an emergency shelter.

The project, in the works since 2005, is a collaboration of Preble Street and Avesta Housing. The two organizations also teamed up to build Logan Place, the city’s first Housing First project, which opened on Frederic Street in 2005.

The Housing First model is a movement based on the concept that if you give a homeless person a place to live first, it will help them to find stability in other aspects of their lives.

"We put roofs over people’s heads and then good things happen," said Gail Kingsley, chairwoman of the Avesta board of directors. Kingsley was one of several speakers at the gathering under sunny skies outside Florence House.

Although residents moved in at the beginning of April, Friday’s event was a chance for supporters to visit the building and for local, state and federal officials to praise Preble Street and Avesta for their work.

Secretary Shawn Donovan of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development came to Portland to speak at the event, and noted that HUD is shifting its focus to preventing homelessness. He praised Maine as a beacon when it comes to housing, by "rolling up your sleeves and getting it done."

"One size doesn’t fit all," Donovan said, referring to the three types of shelter Florence House provides. "It’s time the federal government understands that as well."

U.S. Sens. Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins, both R-Maine, were also on hand, and both quoted Preble Street Executive Director Mark Swann’s simple call to action several years ago, when he said, "Homelessness is not OK."

"Ending homelessness is more than a public policy," Snowe said. "It’s inherently personal."

Officials who spoke Friday also praised Leon and Lisa Gorman, of L.L. Bean, for their support for Florence House and donations to the project.

Although approved by the city in 2007, the $7.7 million project had to weather some challenges before being built, including an economic downturn that slowed funding and a lawsuit filed by some neighbors in the Valley Street-St. John corridor to stop construction.

While the project was being developed, homeless women have slept on mats on the floors at Preble Street. Now, in addition to the efficiency apartments and emergency shelter, Florence House has a "safe-haven" space of 15 semi-private rooms for women not yet ready for their own apartments.

Homeless advocates credit Logan Place, which allows men and women, but is predominately male, with reducing the number of chronically homeless people in Portland. Police credit the housing with reducing calls for service, too.

Like Logan Place, Avesta owns Florence House and manages the property, while Preble Street provides 24-hour staffing and services for the women who live there.

Kate Bucklin can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 106 or