CVC, MMHS host homelessness awareness events

The holiday season, which conjures images of warm homes and spending time with family, seems an appropriate time to ask the question: “What does home mean to you?” This month, the Colby Volunteer Center (CVC) and Mid-Maine Homeless Shelter (MMHS) are using the time to raise awareness about homelessness by hosting events at the College.

The past week has been dedicated to several on-campus events from MMHS including a discussion, lecture, and a dinner with the shelter’s program coordinator and executive director.

The MMHS has been in several locations over the past three decades. Founded by the Interfaith Council of Waterville, the MMHS saw its first guests in November 1990. A temporary location on Silver Street was soon abandoned for the modest, 18 bed home on Ticonic Street. 22 years later the shelter moved again, this time to its current location on 19 Colby Street. Interestingly enough, this location next to the Kennebec River is where the College campus used to be situated before it moved to Mayflower Hill.

There is a long history of cooperation between the shelter and the College. According to MMHS Executive Director Betty Palmer, student fundraisers saved the shelter from the brink of bankruptcy on more than one occasion. Students have also volunteered regularly at the shelter, helping out with food preparation, childcare, organizing birthday parties and more.

“We learn from both staff and guests each time we visit, and our goal is to make the lives of those who work and stay at the shelter a little bit easier,” Clea Harrelson ’16 said. Healson is a Student Program Leader with the CVC who volunteers at the shelter, along with Courtney Klein ’15 and Cara Goldfarb ’17.

“Nobody wants to be homeless,” MMHS Program Coordinator Sheila Bacon said during an on-campus discussion on Tuesday. “They are individuals who maybe have a bit more baggage than everybody else and don’t have a place to stay.”

According to Bacon, the shelter does more than just provide a roof and protection against the cold. The MMHS mission is to provide safe shelter, food, support services and an avenue towards self-sufficiency. Bacon said that guests are required to work towards self-sufficiency by taking classes that address topics like resume writing, job interviews and parenting. Furthermore, learning about budgeting, education and finding an apartment are all part of their stay. The MMHS follows up with guests for up to a year after their departure from the shelter.

Last year, the shelter received national recognition for having 96 percent of its guests maintaining their own homes one year after leaving, and 87 percent after three years.

At a lecture on homelessness on Thursday, Dec. 4, Palmer raised important issues surrounding homelessness. According to the 2013 Annual Homeless Assessment Report by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, the number of cases of homelessness in Maine have increased by 26 percent between 2012 and 2013 despite a nationwide drop.

A decrease in housing voucher availability, with a cut of 1000 vouchers last year and another 1000 this year, has made the reintegration of guests increasingly hard. “We have seen a 35 percent increase in families over two years,” Palmer said. “Families are not the only victims; elderly and youth populations are also increasingly facing homelessness.”

On the flip side, Palmer has a strong mentality of activism. “What if we become crusaders or advocates again?” she said, recounting stories of success that included a woman who got a housing voucher and a job just before having a child.
Meanwhile on the Hill, students are busy fundraising. The Pottery Club sponsored a sale with the proceeds going to the homeless shelter. According to Nancy Meader, who organized the event, the sale raised over five hundred dollars for the shelter.

The CVC student program leaders are excited, but for them fundraising is only one part of working at the MMHS. They characterize their most important accomplishments as some the ones most difficult to quantify, like “that moment when someone starts humming because they hear a song they like playing in the kitchen, or when a child smiles, simply because you sat down next to them to draw.”

“Our most important accomplishments come when we make real connections with people who are part of the shelter community and are able to take what lessons we learn from the shelter and apply them in our lives at Colby,” an email stated, jointly signed by Harrelson, Klein and Goldfarb.

In the spring, Harrelson, Klein and Goldfarb hope to fill open volunteer shifts at the MMHS and to organize events for volunteers to reflect on their experiences.

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