YCSP Has Been Helping People Since 1979
In 1979, after community leaders in southern York County recognized that there was a population of alcoholics - primarily men - who were homeless, an emergency shelter was opened at the former county jail on Route 111 in Alfred. The York County Alcoholism Shelter was incorporated on January 2, 1979, with 56 York County residents listed as incorporators. Mike Kelley was hired as the first director of the shelter.
At that time, county officials were responding to an observable need. They could identify individuals who were alcoholic and homeless. These men slept in the woods, in abandoned buildings, in cars.
The jail was in rough shape, as it had been partially destroyed when inmates rioted in 1978, just before it was closed. Shelter residents slept on old mattresses, some on makeshift bed frames made of plywood and cinder blocks. The shelter was simply that – shelter from the elements.
Over time, county officials would realize several critically important facts about homelessness.
1. It wasn’t only men who were homeless. There were people everywhere who were without shelter – men, women, teens, families – who slept wherever they could. It was true that some people were homeless due to substance abuse issues. However, many people were homeless because of mental illness. Sometimes a person had overlapping issues. Some people were homeless because of financial distress.
2. People are not able to change their circumstances if they aren’t given help to address the issues that led to homelessness.
3. Homelessness is a societal problem that has increased nearly every year. The rise in homelessness parallels the rise of substance abuse and mental health disorders in our country. Also, wages in the U.S. have not kept up with the cost of living, leaving people unable to buy a home or pay rent.
It was clear that York County needed to take a longer view of homelessness.
New Director Creates Initiatives
In 1985, Alfred resident Don Gean was named the new executive director of the shelter. Gean was not happy with the stark conditions at the shelter. The sleeping conditions were rough, and meals usually consisted of sandwiches. There were few resources available to help people change their circumstances.
Gean began making improvements. He asked the Brothers of Christian Instruction, who lived on nearby Shaker Hill, if they would sell the agency whole wheat bread – affordably – from their bakery. When the Brothers decided to close the bakery in 1986, Gean saw its potential as a job training site and as a source of revenue for the shelter programs. He negotiated a lease, and Shaker Hill Bakery has been an important part of the York County Shelter Programs ever since.
The agency’s food pantry also had its origins at the bakery. A hallway there became a storage site for day-old bread and, over time, donations from the community. People needing food were taken into the hallway and given a box or bag to fill. Through word of mouth, hundreds of people were coming in search of food every month; the agency hired a staff person to organize the food and solicit food from local grocery stores. Emergency boxes of food were also kept at the shelter, making food available to those who needed it on a 24-7 basis. The pantry was moved into the renovated Shaker Barn on the shelter’s campus in 2004, which the agency also leased from the Brothers.
Also in 1986, Gean asked the Brothers if the shelter could lease attic space in a building beside the bakery. They agreed. Gean and his staff then took money earned through bakery sales and purchased discount building materials and built five rooms in the attic. Several of the residents who had been staying regularly at the shelter were told that if they maintained sobriety and paid a small stipend for room and board, they would have a home on Shaker Hill for as long as they wanted. All of those original shelter residents lived out their lives there. Sober, safe, in a place of community and support.
Gean also made a foundational change. He changed the shelter’s paradigm of emergency outreach to one of fostering healing and helping people to become more self-reliant. The agency began to offer mental health and addiction treatment and support services. Job training started, in the bakery.
Alfred Shelter First To Receive Federal Funding
In 1987, the Alfred shelter was the first in the nation to received federal funding under the newly enacted Stewart B. McKinney Homeless Assistance Act. The $96,000 grant was used to create 10 living spaces for residents in the basement of a former gymnasium on Shaker Hill, also owned by the Brothers. Over the next seven years, the entire gym was renovated into living spaces, and by 1994 the old jail was no longer used for housing.
In March 1991, the agency’s name was changed to “York County Shelters, Inc.” The name was changed again in August, 1993, to “York County Shelter Programs, Inc.,” further reflecting the comprehensive mission of the organization.
In 2006, using grant money, the agency purchased a farm in West Newfield that provided housing for four elderly residents, as well as eight beds for men coming out of the shelter who needed long-term substance abuse rehabilitation. The Ray Angers Farm – named for one of the shelter’s first residents – was a working farm, with a vegetable garden and farm animals. Residents worked on the farm; food and produce helped supply their kitchen and the Alfred shelter. Just recently, the farm has transitioned back to being a permanent housing property for eight residents.
In 2012, YCSP opened a second residential treatment center when it merged with Serenity House in Portland. The property was recently sold.
Another mission of Gean’s was to create permanent housing possibilities for people. In 2009, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act awarded YCSP $2 million to purchase and renovate homes that had been foreclosed on in the Sanford area. Working in partnership with local municipalities and other community agencies, homes were sold affordably to lower income and previously homeless individuals. In recent years, YCSP has partnered with the Maine State Housing Authority to purchase 32 rental properties throughout York County, which have 120 housing units. All these units are rented by people who were previously homeless.
Gean also wanted YCSP to incorporate sustainability where it could. So, in 2009, using grant money, an array of solar panels was installed at the Angers farm. At the time, it was the largest installation of its kind in Maine. The panels generate electricity (which is also used for heat) for several YCSP residencies in Springvale.
Also in 2009, the first annual Shaker Hill Apple Festival was held. The festival grows every year; in 2018 8,000 people attended.
In 2014, Don Gean retired. Bob Dawber, the former director of Serenity House, was named Chief Executive Officer.
Since Bob Dawber has been with the agency, more services, programs and staff have been added to assist the growing number of clients.
YCSP took over management of The Notre Dame Spiritual Center in 2017. The center hosts retreats and meetings.
In 2018 the food pantry was relocated from the Shaker Barn to a former sheriff’s building on Route 4 in Alfred. The pantry is large, well-stocked, and allows people to shop from a wide variety of offerings. The pantry now feeds about 3000 people per month. The building is an “in-kind” donation by the York County government, and a grant from the Sewall Foundation was used to make the necessary renovations.
Layman Way, a residential substance abuse treatment center, opened in May 2018. This unique program is a partnership with the York County government and York County District Attorney’s office.
Emery House, an eight-bed mental health residential treatment center, opened in Sanford in September 2018.
In 2018, York County Shelter Programs gave shelter to 700 people.
We are proud of this agency, which, over the course of 40 years, evolved from responding to an immediate need to becoming a place where people can make critically important life changes. Every person who arrives here is teamed with a navigator, who helps residents address the reasons that led to homelessness. We support people with treatment plans, with guidance, with job training, with permanent housing options. Our motto is: “Hope starts here.”
We are able to do this work because of the incredible support we get from our communities. From people who make donations and volunteer. We also have an amazing staff that is dedicated to our mission. We believe we have made a difference. Our work continues.