January 23, 2012

Skowhegan homeless shelter gives men second chance

SKOWHEGAN -- "I have never been able to die," Brent Tweedie said, wearing a red hat as he stood beneath falling snow outside the new homeless shelter on McClellan Street on Saturday

click image to enlarge

HOME: Brent Tweedie, 47, shows his bed at the Trinity Men's Homeless Shelter in Skowhegan Saturday morning. Tweedie has been a resident since July 2011.

Staff photo by Michael G. Seamans

click image to enlarge

OPEN: Ron Spaulding, left, and Rev. Richard Perry, right, clap after a ribbon cutting ceremony to officially open the Trinity Men's Homeless Shelter at the Trinity Evangelical Free Church in Skowhegan Saturday morning.

Staff photo by Michael G. Seamans

People walked by him to enter the Skowhegan Miracle Homeless Shelter to commemorate its official opening day. For 47-year-old Tweedie, though, Saturday marked just one in a long line of celebrations of what he described as his new life.

As one of 43 current residents at the shelter, he is surviving depression. After pulling himself back from committing suicide several times, he said he thought: "Maybe God's not ready to take me home yet."

So he found a different home, he said. The men's homeless shelter at Trinity Evangelical Free Church on McClellan Street is filled with men of all ages and backgrounds. Some come directly from jail. Others have earned college degrees and served in the military. Some suffer from mental health problems and addictions.

They all have one thing in common: They have nowhere else to go.

"This place saved my life," Tweedie said.

The grand opening and ribbon cutting on Saturday signaled a culmination of more than three years of work by hundreds of volunteers from Maine and around the country. The two-story shelter, capable of housing 60 men, was built with $130,000 in private donations.

The sum does not include the hundreds of thousands of dollars of in-kind labor and donated materials. It receives no local, state or federal funding.

In addition to a commercial kitchen, dining area, laundry room and living space, Dr. Don Dubois offers a free health clinic for residents and the public every Friday. Residents receive three meals each day.

"I'm about as excited as you can be," said Pastor Richard Berry, who inadvertently started the endeavor several years ago when he let one homeless man sleep on his church's couch. The effort later expanded to the New Hope Shelter in Solon, which is for women and children.

Events on Saturday started with prayers, speakers and a song in the sanctuary. Robert Post, 51, who has lived at the shelter since April, sat in the back of the room, which was filled with about 100 people.

After his father died and his mother moved into a nursing home, the state acquired her house and left Post with no place to live, he said. Without a job, he came to the shelter.

"I'm here solely due to economic reasons," he said.

Bill Oakes, the staff supervisor, said economics appear to be the main reason why people end up at shelters. Standing in a room that serves as both his bedroom and his office, he said, "Homelessness is purely an economic issue. It's not about a moral failure."

Those like Oakes receive room and board in exchange for their work, said Norton Webber, treasurer of the shelter. Annual operating expenses are around $30,000 to $50,000 because there are no paid staff members.

The shelter takes in many people with developmental disabilities or diagnoses having to do with mental health and substance abuse, Oakes said, adding, "They have a more difficult time dealing in society, so they get thrown out first."

In order to prevent homelessness, "you have to change America's attitude toward money," he said. "It amazes me, the people that don't have it to give, they're giving here."

The men are welcomed to the shelter 24 hours per day, seven days per week, Oakes said. Residents have to follow set rules -- such as doing chores and attending prayer and Bible groups -- but they may stay as long as they wish. Six different caseworker agencies help integrate the men back into society.

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