WATERVILLE — The Mid-Maine Homeless Shelter announced this week that it has received a $750,000 grant that amounts to the largest private donation the nonprofit has received in its 31-year history.

Mid-Maine received the largest award possible from the Bezos Day 1 Families Fund, a foundation created by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, Mid-Maine CEO Katie Spencer White said Thursday.

The grant will help accelerate Mid-Maine’s multi-pronged approach toward sheltering more people and helping to end the cycle of homelessness, White said.

“It’s coming just at the right time,” she said.

The Mid-Maine Homeless Shelter is shown at 19 Colby St. in Waterville. The nonprofit announced that it has received a $750,000 grant, the largest private donation in its history. Rich Abrahamson/Morning Sentinel file photo

The first step will be finding a suitable building in Waterville to convert to a family shelter where each family has its own space, and then having Mid-Maine’s emergency shelter on Colby Street serve single people or couples with no children. White hopes to finalize a purchase of a building in Waterville next year and another family shelter in Augusta in 2023, depending on available funding.

One of the problems with the emergency shelter on Colby Street is that it separates families by having a different living space for women and children and one for men, White said. She also noted that since the COVID-19 pandemic, residents have been staying longer at the shelter, when the goal is to have someone stay for only 30 days. Shelters across Maine are operating at a limited capacity because of physical distancing.

“The pandemic has really been a catalyst for us to think differently about how we deliver services,” White said.

White referred to the Bezos grant as “catalytic funding” that will allow the nonprofit to achieve its goals on a shorter timeline than originally anticipated — three to five years rather than 15 to 20.

Although the Bezos grant is the largest ever received by Mid-Maine, White said the organization is still pursuing other avenues of funding, like applying for federal assistance through the Maine Housing Authority, the city of Waterville or Kennebec County.

Federal aid would go toward things like expanding case management services that help people find longer-term housing solutions. Mid-Maine is currently able to divert about 28% of the people who call for emergency shelter by finding other solutions. White hopes to raise that number.

“It’s a lot cheaper to keep people stably housed than to keep them in an emergency shelter,” White said.

The agency also wants to create more opportunities for master leasing, which is a process where Mid-Maine would take over a lease for a person or family and then sublet the apartment to them, easing fears landlords have about missed payments or renting to someone with a spotty rental history.

“We’re willing to be good reliable partners,” White said.

People at the Mid-Maine Homeless Shelter are offered a case manager to create an action plan to obtain stable housing and prevent homelessness in the future.

Mid-Maine also hopes to create up to 32 additional permanent housing units, which can be apartments or houses. The group now operates 12.

There is a dire need for shelter in Maine, White said. There are about 15 available spots for every 100 people in Maine who call needing shelter, she said.

She noted that it’s almost impossible to pinpoint how many people are truly suffering from homelessness in the area because of varying definitions and counts.

The federal Department of Housing and Urban Development estimates that on any given night there are about 2,500 homeless people in Maine, but some researchers suggest that the number could be two to 10 times higher.

“If Waterville accounts for 3% of the statewide total, that’s probably the closest you’re going to get to the number,” White said.

She estimated the statewide total of homeless in Maine at 12,500 — five times higher than HUD’s estimate. The number for Waterville would then be 3% of that, or 375.

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