As a midcoast Maine homeless shelter closes, another one further south prepares to open its doors. Next month the Joe Kreisler Teen Shelter opens in Portland. The 24-bed shelter, run by the Preble Street Resource Center, is the culmination of a $4.5 million fundraising campaign.
The Kreisler shelter replaces the existing Lighthouse Teen Shelter, which has just 16 uncomfortable beds in an old musty building, and only about the half the space of the new facility. The new shelter also has more staff and more private space for studying and counseling.
The Kreisler shelter is cheerful inside, with brightly-painted walls and brand new fixtures and fittings. Nineteen-year-old Crystal Swain was a Lighthouse resident until this week. Taking a tour of the new shelter, she says the beds here are a lot nicer.
"Oh my God, they’re absolutely magnificent – I mean, there are real mattresses and everything," she says. "I mean you don’t really think about how much just a real mattress can do until you absolutely don’t have one, until you have a little piece of plastic that’s, like, this big."
A thin plastic mattress is what Swain has been sleeping on for much of the last two years since she arrived in Portland on her own and moved into the Lighthouse shelter. She says she had a difficult relationship with her family, which she left behind in North Carolina, and she’s no longer in touch.
Swain is academically smart. Her plan is to go to community college for two years, and then to the University of Florida to study marine biology. She now lives in a residential youth housing complex, where she has a shared apartment.
As magnificent as this new teen shelter is – especially compared to the Lighthouse – Swain says it doesn’t detract from one simple fact: "It’s still just a shelter, you know? I mean, as nice as it may be, with painted walls, and the nice mattresses, and the beds and everything else like that, it’s still just a shelter. It’s not a home."
"This is incredible – I’ve never seen such an inspiring space for these guys, and I’m very proud for Preble Street," says Dovid Muyderman, who lived with his brother at the old Lighthouse Shelter for a year in 1994 after they became homeless as teenagers.
He’s impressed with the new center. "This place is just so lively, and I think the kids are going to love it," Muyderman says. "I think if it helps inspire a few kids to stay on the right path because they such a nice place to live, then so be it – I think they will have done their job."
The Muydermen brothers did stay on the right path. Older brother Josh is now a physician in Maryland, while Dovid himself works in corporate governance. He’s also a film-maker and is currently working on a feature film about his experiences at the shelter.
For Mark Swann, director of the Preble Street Resource Center, stories like this are proof that with the right help and encouragement, homelessness can just be temporary, and no barrier to success.
At the Lighthouse shelter, Swann says they routinely have to turn away up to six youths who turn up at night looking for a bed. He hopes the extra eight beds at the Joe Kreisler Center will mean this will won’t have to happen anymore.
But, he says, the center offers more than extra beds. "It’s bigger, it’s nicer, there’s more capacity here to provide counseling and tutoring and public health services."
Part of the money raised for the new shelter is also being used to expand services and hours at the nearby teen center, where kids can spend their daytime hours if they need to.
"So combined with this new shelter, for the first time in Portland, we’re going to have 24 hours of a safe place for kids to be 365 days a year, where there’ll be counselors and school and mental health professionals, substance abuse counseling, as well as getting basic needs met – food, shelter, safety and things like that," Swann says.
The Joe Kriesler Teen Shelter in Portland opens its doors Jan. 6, 2013.