Shelter by next summer?

PORTLAND – It’s become a nearly daily ritual for the homeless youths in Maine’s largest city — a lottery to see who gets a bed and who doesn’t.

"Four out of five nights, we’re turning young people away," said Mark Swann, executive director of Preble Street, a non-profit agency that runs the city’s only shelter for teenagers and young adults.

Preble Street now hopes to replace the 22-year-old Lighthouse Shelter on Elm Street with a new, more comfortable shelter large enough for everyone. The city’s Planning Board could vote this month on the proposed site for the new shelter, a brick office building about a block away on Preble Street.

If approved, and if Preble Street can raise $3.5 million to buy, renovate and staff the building, the new shelter could open next summer.

The current shelter is an aging, converted apartment building that has eight beds for boys on the second floor and eight beds for girls on the third floor. Each floor has a bathroom, and there’s a snack room and TV room on the first floor.

No one under 18 years old is ever turned away. But those between the ages of 18 and 21 — the maximum age to use the shelter — sometimes lose the lottery and don’t get a bed.

Those who don’t fit into the youth shelter can go to the Oxford Street adult shelter and sleep on a floor mat. But it’s an intimidating place for a young person, and usually a last resort.

"They find a buddy and do some couch surfing," Swann said. "They’re also trading their bodies for a bed for the night."

Justin Busque and Ayla Goulet, both 20 years old and homeless, said they are lucky most nights and get a bed. But both also have been turned away from the youth shelter because there were too many people.

"If a minor shows up (and the beds are full), you lose your bed," Goulet said. "I got kicked out at 5 in the morning once when a minor showed up."

She was taken to the women’s shelter, which happened to have a bed available that night. The women’s shelter now overflows each night, so the only other option is the Oxford Street shelter, which primarily serves men.

While considered the best alternative, those who stay there say the existing Lighthouse Shelter is not exactly a comfortable place.

It’s always in need of repair and the old apartment building is like a maze, they said.

Goulet said mornings are always stressful. The shelter has to be emptied out by 8 a.m. and eight girls on the top floor share a single bathroom with one toilet and two showers.

Goulet hopes to find a job and an apartment long before the new shelter opens next year. But, she said, it will be a big improvement for kids who need a place to sleep.

"It sounds like it’s going to be a lot better," she said.

The new shelter will be more comfortable and inviting and easier for the staff to supervise, according to Swann and Chris Bicknell, teen services coordinator.

It will have multiple common areas, more bathrooms and more semi-private sleeping areas for different age groups. And it will have beds for 24 youths, and the flexibility to handle various combinations of boys and girls.

"We’re designing the spaces where there are some open areas where we can move beds in and out," Bicknell said.

The maintenance costs and design limitations of the existing building have been a problem for years, according to Swann and Bicknell. But the fact that the shelter has been turning away youths for the past two years, and an impending rent increase, added more urgency to the move.

Preble Street has an option to buy the three-story office building for just under $1 million. The bottom floor will be common space and offices, and beds will be on the top two floors.

The new shelter will be almost directly across the street from Preble Street’s teen center, where youths can get breakfast, socialize and meet with social workers.

The Planning Board, which must approve the new use of the office building at Preble Street and Cumberland Avenue, held a workshop to review the plan last week. It has received about 300 written comments in support of the plan and none opposed, according to the planning department. One person spoke against the project at the workshop, saying Bayside is a blighted neighborhood and that the shelter contributes to the problem.

Swann said past efforts to relocate or build shelters in the city have been much more controversial.

"It serves a very vulnerable group of kids," he said. "I think there’s a lot of compassion around that."

The board is scheduled to have a public hearing and vote on the plan Nov. 22.

Preble Street has raised about $1.8 million of its $3.5 million goal to complete the project. Some of the money will help pay for the added staff that will be required because of the additional beds, Swann said. Preble Street plans to pay for the project entirely with private donations.


Staff Writer John Richardson can be contacted at 791-6324 or at: