SACO — There are nearly 1,000 homeless veterans in Maine on any given night.
Mike Wells used to be one of them.
But for the past six months, Wells has been living in one of 10 efficiency apartments at the Arthur B. Huot Veteran Housing, a residential housing program run by Volunteers of America Northern New England to aid homeless veterans.
The 56-year-old Wells, who has served in the Marines, the Navy and the National Guard, said alcoholism has played a major role in his struggle with homelessness. He has been homeless four times in the past five years and has already been through a similar program in Biddeford for homeless veterans there. Veterans Affairs referred him to this housing program.
“These are new to Maine and are really needed,” Wells said of the housing program. “It’s been good. This is a really good program.”
His goal this time is not only to become reintegrated into the community and secure stable housing, but also to pay it forward by helping veterans who have found themselves in similar situations.
“Huot House,” named for Biddeford native and Navy veteran Arthur Huot, who died last year, opened in November.
It is the first homeless veteran-focused housing program in Maine to accept female veterans and one of three housing programs statewide for homeless veterans, said David Bann, associate chief of mental health for VA Maine Healthcare System. The other two are the Veterans Career House in Biddeford and the Landing Zone in Waterville.
Bann said there are ongoing efforts in the state to develop additional housing opportunities and programs for Maine’s homeless veterans.
“It’s a tremendous need and an overwhelming need,” he said.
Veterans are particularly vulnerable to becoming homeless because they often have post-traumatic stress disorder or other mental health issues, and some also are dealing with substance abuse, Bann said. This, in turn, interferes with the ability to hold down a job or pay for housing.
“Whether it is substance abuse or mental health, transitional housing (like Huot House) provides stability to work on those issues to then pursue permanent housing,” Bann said.
Huot House is currently at capacity with 10 residents ranging from vets in their 30s to 81-year-old Jay Merriman, a veteran of World War II.
The typical stay is between 18 and 24 months, according to Anita Brown, director of behavioral health services for the Volunteers of America Northern New England. Unlike shelters that provide only a temporary place to stay, veterans get their own room with a small kitchen and dining area, bed and private bathroom.
To address physical and mental health needs, veterans also have access to health care through a telecommunications system or at off-site appointments through the VA Maine Healthcare System, Brown said. They also work with case managers on site to develop an action plan for when they leave.
“We work with individuals to develop their own plan. We identify barriers and work toward overcoming those barriers,” Brown said. “Meanwhile, this is a place they can call home.”
The sparsely decorated house has a community space, including a kitchen and dining area downstairs and a lounge area upstairs with a flat-screen television and shelves filled with books. Donated scenic photos line the walls of the hallway leading to each apartment. Outside is a garden, with Adirondack chairs surrounding a fire pit, picnic table and grill.
On a recent morning, a group of residents sat outside in a circle, sipping coffee, chatting and soaking up the fall sunshine. Wells said being around other veterans who have experienced combat helps in the transition from being homeless to getting back on his feet.
“It’s easier to talk to somebody who’s been there before,” Wells said, adding that civilians who haven’t experienced war “just don’t understand.”
While groups work toward creating more transitional housing for homeless veterans, a $2,500 grant from the Maine Community Foundation will help Volunteers of American Northern New England develop outreach programs to help more homeless veterans in the community, spokesman Glenn Michaels said, such as informing veterans of various resources available to them.
“It will help us get out into the community, talk to veterans and people who run shelters to get a real handle on what the needs are … to help us plan for the future,” Michaels said.
Staff Writer Emma Bouthillette can be contacted at 791-6325 or at: