“Did you say Linden Street? We want it!”
“But you don’t even know what it is yet!”
“It doesn’t matter. We want it!” — Spring 2019 exchange between two local realtors — one heard the other speaking with a client on the phone and interrupted the call.

We talk often in the community about a lack of safe, affordable, and healthy housing in the midcoast. We talk often about gentrification — a process in which richer people descend upon a place and, intentionally or not, end up pushing out the poorer people who already live there — and what can be done to slow its heartbreaking, seemingly inevitable culture-killing boulder. The recipe for gentrification and growing homelessness is written all over Rockland.

Becca has been chatting with realtors all year. They speak about how “hot” Rockland properties are now, particularly in the South End (where Linden Street is). This fall, they report people being desperate to snatch up a Rockland property before heading back to wherever they live most of the time. This leaves houses sitting empty most of the year while people who grew up here try to sleep in cars, bank lobbies, tents by the waterfront or behind a graveyard, under porches, or in campers. Some couch-surf among family and friends. Some are temporarily put up in hotels by local congregations and town/city General Assistance. For the remaining year-round rental spaces, rents are high and many people’s wages simply don’t cover the costs of housing, raising children, medicine and other basic necessities, no matter how they do the math. Many local rentals won’t accept Section 8 vouchers and other forms of housing support. On top of that, incomes here are low compared to elsewhere, and the rising house prices, which are out of reach for so many locals, still count as “cheap” for those on a Connecticut consultant’s salary. In a time of extreme wealth inequality, Rockland is caught in the crosshairs.

It won’t solve everything, but we are thrilled about a local proposal that, if enough money can be raised, will provide emergency overnight housing this winter in Rockland. Local religious groups and the Knox County Homeless Coalition (KCHC) formed the Community Emergency Shelter Committee, which plans a pilot project: a four-month emergency shelter at the Flanagan Community Center (aka the Rec Center). The local churches, which often pay for emergency hotel stays, know that, in the long term, a permanent shelter might be called for. For now, they decided this is a good starting point to see what demand is like. While the KCHC has a five-year plan to expand capacity, it will be years before they can raise the money and build. Meanwhile, there is urgent need now. The committee identified the Flanagan Community Center as the best location around due to its central location, large open room, and showers. Costs for the pilot are relatively low, in part because the city of Rockland and the YMCA will donate use of the building. A budget of $70,000 will cover one paid staff member on duty at all times, cleaning, and other operational expenses. To keep costs low, the project will rely on volunteers. It’s a lot to ask, but the hope is that volunteering for the project will cultivate a feeling of community. It may incorporate a buddy system in which people can volunteer with a friend.

The shelter will be fairly low-barrier: guests will give their name or ID, and the only screening will be related to sexual assault perpetrators. Guests will not be forced to undergo sobriety tests (though people clearly under the influence won’t be admitted). There will be no limit on duration of overnight stays. Bathrooms will be monitored for safety, with backpacks held in lockers during the night. There will be opportunities to connect with other community support systems. The shelter will be open to guardians with kids, and those of all genders. Unfortunately, due to strict regulations, the shelter can’t host anyone under 18 without a guardian. Youth will be referred to KCHC’s Landing Place, the local youth drop-in center, which is developing a Host Homes program for local families to house homeless youth.

The committee will know soon if they receive some vital grants and is also seeking funds and volunteers from the community. You can donate to the project’s fiscal sponsor, the Knox County Homeless Coalition, by check to: Emergency Shelter Pilot, P.O. Box 1255, Rockland, ME 04841, or via the KCHC website, with a note that your donation is for the Emergency Shelter Pilot Program. To volunteer, email: emergencyshelterpilot@gmail.com.

Ultimately, we need a world where no one is un-housed, but in the meantime, emergency shelters are a necessity, and we are grateful that this one is in process.