April 5, 2010

Florence House to open doors for homeless women

Females staying at Preble Street prepare for a life-changing move

By John Richardson jrichardson@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

PORTLAND — For the past three years, the closest thing to home for Shellie Duncan has been a folding cot in a corner of the community room at Preble Street, a social service agency in downtown Portland.

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Florence House on Valley Street in Portland, a $7.9 million haven for homeless women that has been five years in the making, will open to its first residents Tuesday. Forty women will move into the home this week.

Gordon Chibroski/Staff Photographer

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Debora Keller, left, director of development for Avesta Housing, and Amanda Wells, coordinator for Florence House, give a tour of the new home for homeless women on Valley Street last week. This is one of the independent living rooms at the facility.

Gordon Chibroski/Staff Photographer

Additional Photos Below

And that was a step up from her previous "home," a floor mat at the city's Oxford Street shelter.

Now, she's about to get a new home – a real one.

"It's beautiful," Duncan, 29, said after a visit to the fully furnished apartment she will move into this week. "I didn't want to leave."

Florence House, a $7.9 million haven for homeless women that has been five years in the making, will open to its first residents Tuesday.

the end of this week, 40 women will move into the home's apartments or its semi-private bedrooms, called safe-haven spaces. Others will come to stay in the home's emergency shelter, a separate room with real beds and real mattresses.

It will be a life-changing move across town, to Valley Street, and even the short visit last week was emotional for many women.

"When I found out I would have my own place, I cried. It's crazy," said Brenda Biggs, who will stay in a safe-haven space while she's on a waiting list for public housing. "I've been pushing around a cart. I feel like a bag lady. I feel like I hit rock bottom."

Now, Biggs said, "you can feel good about yourself."

Florence House was created by Preble Street, the nonprofit agency that now hosts the women's shelter, and Avesta Housing, a Portland-based nonprofit housing developer.

Named after a longtime Preble Street volunteer, Florence House was built with a combination of state and federal financing and private donations. It will be run by Preble Street and a 24-hour staff.

And it could hardly be more different from the current shelter. There, women line up each evening until the doors open and they can claim their cots. They have to move out each morning so the cots can be put away again.

There were more than 300 women who stayed in the Preble Street shelter during the past year, with an average occupancy of 49 each night.

Preble Street is an appreciated refuge, and the women say it's much better than what they had when they shared the Oxford Street shelter with men. But it's not comfortable or peaceful, Duncan said. "I can't get any sleep here," she said.

Florence House will give the most vulnerable members of the city's homeless community a sense of security that they can't afford to have on the street, said Amanda Wells, director of the Preble Street shelter and the new coordinator of Florence House.

"I don't think the women ever could feel truly safe" at Preble Street, Wells said. "There's this hyper-vigilance that women have over there."

The new space is bright, spacious and homey, with colorful walls, comfortable furniture and an outdoor patio. The basement even has a hair salon for visiting hairdressers to make house calls.

The first floor has a kitchen and a dining room where women will be able to eat three meals day. It also holds the emergency shelter and the safe-haven spaces, which can be permanent housing for women who aren't ready for apartments.

"One woman stood right here and said, 'This is too good for me,'" said Debora Keller, Avesta's director of development, as she stood in one of the rooms. "Suddenly, they have homes where they can be 24 hours a day."

The top two floors have 25 efficiency apartments, each furnished with everything from pots and pans to donated L.L. Bean furniture.

(Continued on page 2)

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Additional Photos

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Women who have been staying at the Preble Street shelter are looking forward to this week’s move to Florence House. They say they are most excited about having a bed and a place to leave their belongings. From left are Shellie Duncan, Brenda Biggs and Kaylah Stowell.

John Ewing/Staff Photographer

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Frances Mercado, left, and Tracy Kane unpack supplies for Florence House on Valley Street, the new home for homeless women.

John Ewing/Staff Photographer

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Terry Valente, a supervisor at Florence House, talks with Patrolman Chris Sibley during a tour by the Portland Police Department last week. They are in the emergency shelter part of the facility.

Gordon Chibroski/Staff Photographer

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The basement at Florence House has a hair salon for visiting hairdressers to make house calls.

Gordon Chibroski/Staff Photographer

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Dawn Wade has a new apartment at Florence House and a job in a store nearby. She says having a real home will change a lot of lives. “It’s an opportunity for all of us to grow,” she said.

John Ewing/Staff Photographer


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