Developer Kevin Bunker bought the historic brick building in Portland’s sought-after West End neighborhood more than three years ago. His goal was to transform what was there into condominiums that would almost certainly fetch a handsome price in a hot housing market.

Somewhere along the way, though, he opted for a different direction.

“The more I thought about it, the more I thought we could do something a little more interesting than condos,” Bunker said. “More and more, I’ve found that, as a developer, you can do cool things that also benefit the community.”

That something more interesting became a 38-unit transitional housing complex for women experiencing homelessness who also are dealing with substance use disorder. It’s a first-of-its-kind partnership between Bunker’s firm, Developers Collaborative, the social service agency Amistad, MaineHousing, and others.

The needs for housing and treatment have never been more critical, especially during a pandemic that has squeezed social services. Homelessness continues to be an enormous challenge in Greater Portland and elsewhere, and the number of people who died from drug overdoses in Maine set another grim record in the last year. According to state data, 578 deaths were recorded from January through November 2021. The previous record for a full year was 502, set just one year earlier.

Bunker’s $6.5 million project has stretched out over two years, but the first residents began moving in late last month with more to follow. Many will be coming from hotel rooms that have been used by the city to house homeless individuals because shelters are overflowing. Filling the space will not be a challenge.

On Tuesday, an event will be held at 1 p.m. at the Maine Irish Heritage Center in Portland to mark its completion. Gov. Janet Mills, among others, will be on hand to celebrate the accomplishment.

The house will be called Freedom Place, a name with two meanings, one of them quite personal to Bunker’s family.

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Bunker, one of Portland’s most well-known developers, has earned a reputation for community-minded projects, including the city of Portland’s 200-plus bed homeless shelter in the Riverton neighborhood. But that wasn’t necessarily his first thought for 66 State St.

The building, once home to St. Dominic’s Parochial School for Boys, was owned by Catholic Charities Maine, but the longtime tenant was Amistad, a well-established peer support and recovery center.

Freedom Place on State Street in Portland is a new transitional housing program for women who were homeless or are recovering from substance use disorder. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

The sale meant Amistad would have to find a new home after nearly 30 years, although Bunker assured the agency he’d give them plenty of time to relocate. As time went on, though, he got to know the staff there and the individuals they served, and his vision for his newest acquisition changed.

“He really took an interest in what we were doing,” said Meredith Pesce, associate executive director for Amistad. “I don’t know if a lot of developers would do that.”

Five years ago, Amistad created its first transitional housing project, an eight-bed unit called Beacon House. The mission was simple. Provide homeless people with the thing they need most: A home.

“If you’re homeless and dealing with years of trauma, recovery doesn’t even seem like an option,” Pesce said. “What we’ve learned is that the most important first thing is a safe warm place to decompress.”

That’s how it was for Jenni Chapman, a former resident of Beacon House and now a staff member for Amistad.

“There was no way I was going to continue to live if I was going to stay on the streets,” said Chapman, 51, who is four years into recovery and living in her own apartment with two roommates.

People like Chapman have made Beacon House a success story, but it meets only a fraction of the need in Maine’s largest city.

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The building at 66 State St. was large enough to provide many more rooms for homeless women in recovery, but pulling off the project proved to be slightly more complicated than if Bunker had simply developed condos.

Partners were eager to help.

First, the project qualified for historic tax credits, which reduced Bunker’s burden and made financing a little easier.

“It’s less risk for the bank,” he explained.

A communal gathering area on the third floor of Freedom Place. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

Amistad committed to providing staff for residents, a prospect that became easier after its peer center found its new home on India Street, where the city public health clinic used to be.

But that wasn’t enough.

Bunker knew most of the women who lived there would need some type of housing assistance.

MaineHousing, the state’s housing authority, stepped in and committed to providing 25 housing vouchers for income-eligible women who stay there.

“This project is putting a national best practice to work, helping some of our most vulnerable citizens,” Maine Housing Director Daniel Brennan said. “It is part of a larger, statewide effort to help those who have been cycling in and out of homelessness and hospitals for too long.”

Pesce said being able to provide MaineHousing vouchers to two-thirds of residents is “a game changer.”

Gordon Smith, Maine’s director of opioid response, said he’s learned during his time in that role how vital safe, stable housing is for people in recovery, especially women in recovery.

“Historically, we’ve done a lot of things wrong in trying to combat this epidemic,” he said. One example, he said, was terminating someone from treatment if they’ve had a relapse, or a recurrence of uses. That won’t happen here.

Smith said he’d love to see more developers like Bunker see value in these types of projects.

“If they can do it there, they can do it other places,” he said.

Bunker still plans to develop some private housing on the site, too – approximately 30 affordable apartments – sometime later this year.

And he’s already been approached by other partners about similar projects for vulnerable populations.

“I’d love to do more,” he said.

***

Like so many Mainers, Bunker has a personal connection to the opioid epidemic. His only brother died of a drug overdose in 2001, at a time when drug-related deaths were far less common than they are now.

Developer Kevin Bunker and his daughter Alex stand in a room at Freedom Place in Portland. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

Then, in June 2020, while his latest project was in full swing, someone else close to him died: his former partner, Freedom Hamlin, the mother of his teenage daughter, Alex.

Alex Bunker said she was aware of her mother’s substance use as a girl but stunned by her death just the same. She had tried to get into treatment shortly before her fatal overdose, but it didn’t happen. Alex has wondered often about whether her mother’s death could have been avoided if she’d had access to supportive housing away from the factors that enabled her drug use.

Freedom Hamlin Courtesy of the family

Indeed, the challenges for women in recovery or facing homelessness are often greater. Chapman said she was often harassed when she was on the street or in a shelter and she feared being assaulted. Pesce added that the recovery field has historically been male dominated.

“That can be harmful to women, depending on their experience,” she said.

When it came time to think about a name for his latest project, Kevin Bunker had the idea to name it after Freedom. But only if his daughter was on board.

“I think it’s a great way to sort of honor her,” said Alex, now 19. “Most people I know, they’ve never had a family member taken this way, so they don’t necessarily have that knowledge. But it really can be anyone.”

Alex said her mom was an artist and jewelry designer. Her favorite type of design was a butterfly, which is now part of the logo for Freedom Place. She hopes the women who come through heal and get their lives back, and perhaps learn about the facility’s namesake along the way.


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