By Ramona du Houx

August 27, 2010

8f902330a9ee317a-florencehouseFlorence House’s, which gives homes to 65 women, celebrates its opening. photo by Ramona du Houx

Florence House gives 65 women nothing less than a second chance at life. Destitute and on the streets of Portland, sleeping in bus stations, cardboard boxes, or the park, these ladies had found their way to Preble Street Resource Center. There they found sympathy and food. They were given mattresses on the floor, six inches apart, to sleep on along with men.

Preble Street serves hundreds of homeless people every year and during the recession helped to feed a wide variety of people who suddenly found themselves unemployed. The staff at Preble Street recognized long ago that their temporary night shelter wasn’t a solution to the problem of the homelessness that they hope to eradicate from Portland, but it was and continues to be a beacon of hope.

Over the years, Mark Swann, the executive director of Preble Street, built a coalition. He found a receptive and encouraging partner in Governor John Baldacci. In 2005, the governor appointed Nancy Fritz of Maine State Housing as director of Homeless Initiatives in Portland, to help solve the homeless problem. Working with the Legislature, the Baldacci administration found needed funds for the project.

Swann worked with state, local, and federal officials, along with nonprofits and businesses, to make the vision of a safe haven for homeless women to reclaim their lives become a reality. After six years of construction, hundreds of people gathered June 4 on Valley Street to celebrate the opening of Florence House, the city’s first homeless housing project exclusively for women.

Inside the entry way of Florence House is a plaque in honor of the governor’s support.

“It’s easy to do our part and find what money is available. Without the people like Mark Swann and his team, we wouldn’t be able to accomplish any of this; we’re riding in on their shoulders,” said Governor Baldacci. “This will give women new opportunities in life; it’s wonderful.”

Hundreds of people came to the event, along with the governor, Senators Snowe and Collins, U.S. Rep. Pingree, and a spokesperson from U.S. Rep. Michaud’s office.

“How can a country like America, with all its wealth and ingenuity, have people who are homeless?” asked Rep. Pingree. “It’s wrong. And Florence House moves us as a nation in the right direction.”

The beautifully designed three-story energy-efficient building has large windows, giving it a spacious, uplifting feeling. There are 25 apartments on the first two floors, 15 semi-private units, and up to 25 emergency shelter beds.

Besides mental health counseling and substance abuse services, the facility has a cafeteria and community cooking spaces, along with meeting rooms, sitting areas, and a serenity garden. There is even a beauty salon, where volunteers from local beauty parlors and staff cut the ladies’ hair on Mondays.

“By providing three types of housing — from independent living, to safe havens, to emergency beds — to 65 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,” said U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development Secretary Shaun Donovan. “I’m here in Portland today because it’s time the federal government understood that as well. We are aggressively going to implement solutions to our national homeless problem. Florence House is a great example for us to follow.”

The $7.7 million facility has been at capacity since it opened. The residents do pay subsidized rent. The women who live at Florence House, named for Florence Young, a long-time social worker at Preble Street, range in age from 18 to 85.

“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.

The Housing First model is a movement based on the concept that if you give a homeless person a place to live first, it will help them to find stability in their life. Florence House is based on the Housing First concept. It’s considered a more effective model than emergency overnight shelters, because it gives the women some dignity and respect, while they are transitioned by trained councilors into new lives.

“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 ten years,” said Swann.

Homelessness has increased in the city by 100 percent since 1993, with women representing the fastest growing group. To address that growing trend, Preble Street opened Logan Place, a 30-unit apartment building, in 2005, with the help of Avesta Housing. Since then, the City of Portland has reported the percentage of chronically homeless people down 18 percent. Like Logan Place, Avesta owns Florence House and manages the property, while Preble Street provides 24-hour staffing and services for the women who live there.

After the press conference, Donovan was asked when the federal government will eliminate homelessness, and he said, “We have plans to eradicate homelessness, which will be announced in the near future — so stay tuned.”

A month after Donovan’s visit, the Opening Doors: Federal Strategic Plan to Prevent and End Homelessness was announced.

“Working together with Congress, state and local officials, faith-based and community organizations, and business and philanthropic leaders across our country, we will harness public and private resources to build on the innovations that have been demonstrated at the local level nationwide,” said Donovan at that time.

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