PORTLAND — Todd Lemoine sat on the steps outside the Milestone Foundation emergency shelter in Portland and appreciated the blessing of a safe and warm place to stay.

He’s had friends die of exposure and with Maine’s winter coming on, Milestone can be a lifesaver for someone whose alternative is sleeping under a bridge or in the woods.

“I’m very grateful for this place because of all the shelters I’ve been in since 2002, this is probably the best one,” he said, getting choked up. “They’re helping the people, alcoholics like me.”

Lemoine and others with substance abuse problems were able to spend the night Friday at the Milestone shelter on India Street after state and federal officials worked to reopen the shelter without losing federal funding for the separate detoxification program.

“It’s very good news,” Terry Huntley, president of the Milestone Foundation board of directors, said Friday. “It’s Veterans Day, and a lot of the clients we have always had are clients who have served our country and it seems even more appropriate that today the doors are back open.”

The need for the emergency shelter is acute but having it adjacent to the detoxification program can help users make the transition to sobriety, she said.

Milestone has for years operated an 18-bed detoxification facility and a 41-bed emergency shelter at its building on India Street. The nonprofit agency had since the 1980s operated under a waiver of federal rules that limit residential facilities to 16 beds.

Suddenly, at the beginning of the month, the Centers for Medicaid and Medicare announced the waiver was no longer applicable and Milestone had three days to either reduce its capacity to 16 or risk losing all Medicaid funding — a significant source of money for the detoxification program.

“We didn’t want to lose the funding for the detoxification portion because those people were already in treatment,” Huntley said. “They made their decision. They were working their program. To lose them just seemed absolutely ridiculous.”

The detox program was cut back to 16 beds and the shelter was temporarily moved.

Preble Street, another nonprofit, put cots in a hallway to accommodate the Milestone emergency shelter clientele while state officials and U.S. Sens. Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins worked on the issue.

The Republican senators Thursday announced that the shelter had been given a reprieve and on Friday, the men and women who depend on it were able to stay there.

“It helps with the cold, mostly for the sick ones,” said Vince Neil, a client who stood outside the shelter Friday before heading inside. He had used the makeshift Preble Street facility for a few nights the previous week, he said.

Milestone staff drove clients who showed up on India Street over to Preble Street, but some chose to stay away altogether, Huntley said.

The shelter serves people who are active drug and alcohol users and can’t mix well with the more traditional homeless population, she said.

Huntley said the shelter and detoxification program complement each other even though they are separate and on separate floors of the building. The shelter provides a safe, warm place to stay and clients can see other people who are in recovery.

“Whatever is going on with them, they see other people who are in similar situations and now are able to get into a situation where they get treatment,” Huntley said. “They see they have choices right there.”

One of the arguments in favor of restoring the shelter beds to the Milestone facility was that they do not constitute a residential program because people cannot stay there during the day and the services available to them are limited. To ensure they meet that test, the shelter may reduce some of the services that have historically been available to shelter clients. Clients have historically been able to take showers, do laundry and get a meal, but it’s not clear if any of those services will change.

In addition to its emergency shelter and detoxification program, Milestone also operates a 20-bed extended care program in Old Orchard Beach. The organization has a budget of about $1.9 million, with funding from the federal, state and local government as well as several private foundations. Milestone employs about 41 full and part-time staff including nurses, nurses aides, personal care attendants and counselors.

The issue may well come up again. The waiver was reinstated but the rules remains, Huntley said. But at least for the foreseeable future, the clients have a reprieve.

“The fact is, they’ll have a place to be during the winter months,” she said.

Staff Writer David Hench can be contacted at 791-6327 or at: [email protected]