New Housing Project Aims to Open Doors for Portland's Homeless Women

National, state and local elected leaders gathered in Portland today to celebrate the opening of Florence House, a permanent housing facility for homeless women. Its construction was prompted by a sharp rise in homelessness in the city, and officials say it’s a more effective model than emergency overnight shelters.

The women at Florence House range in age from 18 to 85. They’ve previously lived with friends, in temporary shelters, cars and bus stations — even in the woods. The residents weren’t available to speak to the media on this afternoon, but one woman who used to stay at the Preble Street Resource Center attended the grand opening to tour the new facility.

Linda Burnham says the Florence House is a far cry from the rows of cots at the Center. “My cot, for the most part, was down by the three bathrooms and couple showers right there, and it was really absolutely exhausting. Some nights I didn’t get a lot of sleep.”

Burnham has just moved into an apartment of her own in Biddeford and says she’s been happy to see some of her old friends move into their own apartments at Florence House.

“In the first few days I was in my apartment, I got up when I wanted to, I slept, went to bed when I wanted to, had what I wanted to eat. And that was nice,” Burnham says. “Maybe the space isn’t real huge but at least there’s a TV room here and private areas for the ladies and the apartments upstairs. I just wanted to see it because I came so close to having to move in.”

It’s the goal of Florence House to watch more women like Burnham find permant housing. The facility offers 25 efficiency apartments, 15 semi-private units and up to 25 emergency shelter beds.

“Twenty-four hours a day in the facility we have trained clinical social workers who can support people because the people who are in the apartments have been on the streets and in shelters, for some cases over 10 years,” says Mark Swann, the executive director of Preble Street, which provides services and staffing at Florence House.

It’s now been open for seven weeks, after six years of construction. The residents do pay rent, but it’s subsidized. It cost just over $7.5 million to build the facility, with public and private funds. At today’s opening the entire Maine congressional delegation and the governor celebrated with U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development Secretary Shaun Donovan.

“By providing three types of housing, from independent living to safe havens to emergency beds, to 60 women here in Portland, each of whom face unique challenges, Florence House recognizes that one size doesn’t fit all when it comes to confronting homelessness in our communities,” Donovan said. “I’m here in Portland today because it’s time the federal government understood that as well.”

Donovan praised Portland’s efforts to eliminate the problem of homelessness, which has increased in the city by 100 percent since 1993. As shelter counts rise, women represent the fastest growing group. Preble Street opened a 30-unit apartment building in 2005 with the help of Avesta Housing. Since the arrival of Logan Place, the City of Portland has reported the percentage of chronically homeless people down 18 percent.

“Portland understands that emergency shelters are not the answer. This is a viable, small-city model to end chronic homelessness that can be replicated over and over again,” says Gail Kingsley, chair of the board of Avesta, the state’s largest nonprofit affordable housing organization.

She says supportive permanent housing such as Logan Place and Florence House helps homeless people become more stable and productive. Florence House is named after longtime Portland resident and social worker Florence Young, who says she plans to volunteer at the facility.