At the first community conversation on affordable housing at Curtis Memorial Library this past October, we learned that 45 percent of Mainers do not have enough savings to cover a $400 emergency expense.  Do you sense this struggle of many of our neighbors?  Are you discouraged by the divisions and rancor in our civic life?  I’ve found that there is joy and hope to be found in local community spaces where people are coming together to see and respond to needs.

One of those spaces is The Gathering Place, which provides a safe and comfortable place in downtown Brunswick where everyone is welcome — to be with others, enjoy some free coffee and snacks, and experience respect and companionship.  As a volunteer there, I’ve had a chance to meet many amazing, gifted people who have been challenged by heavy burdens.  Among many others, I’ve become friendly with elderly, middle-aged and young men who’ve done heavy outdoor work and experienced injuries or health problems, people who bike to low wage jobs in fast food restaurants or in personal care and struggle to make ends meet, and young people homeless due to serious abuse and violence in their homes.  My life is enriched by being part of this community, where we all welcome and care for one another.

Other spaces have been created by groups of people coming together over this past year, in Bath and Brunswick, for community conversations focused on the needs of our neighbors and how we are responding.  The Neighborhood Church in Bath convened three conversations on homelessness in the spring on 2019, and then formed two workgroups – one on expanding homelessness prevention funds – which I joined – and one on affordable housing strategies.  Each group presented their ideas at community meetings this past fall, and continue to work on different strategies.

In the Brunswick area, I worked with librarians at Curtis Memorial Library, and other concerned community members, to organize three community conversations on affordable housing at the Library this past fall.  We heard brief, informative presentations from local and state leaders active in addressing this issue.  After the first, which explored facts about our economy and homelessness, the second gave a picture of what affordable housing we have locally, and what we need.  We heard about the real crisis created by flat wages for many low and middle-income residents and rising rents and home prices, and learned about the work of our local housing authority, and what it took to do the River Landing affordable housing development in Topsham.   At the third conversation, six panelists highlighted a range of ideas about how we can have more affordable housing – including growing the funds available (from both government programs and organizations like our local Genesis community loan fund), changing local policies and zoning, and providing renovations that allow people to stay in their homes.  Each conversation was recorded by TV 3 Brunswick and is easily available to view online at (or google Curtis Memorial Library, Housing).

For the Curtis Library conversations, we developed a handout on How You Can Support Affordable Housing, which lists many ideas, and links to more information and resources.  This can also be found at the Curtis library housing website listed above.   Is there one new you could do to share resources you have — writing a letter, donating, volunteering, joining a group, helping a neighbor?

I invite you to join me in experiencing the pleasure of connections, community and work for the common good in these community spaces!  Together, we can make a difference, bringing some light to others and to ourselves.

Mary O’Brien is a The Gathering Place board member, and a community organizer.   Giving Voice is a weekly collaboration among four local non-profit service agencies to share information and stories about their work in the community.

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