Doing anti-poverty work is tough and has become even more challenging as the pandemic has led to unprecedented economic instability, social isolation and increased polarization in society. The mission of Preble Street has always been to care for people who have nowhere else to turn and to provide professional social work services to incredibly vulnerable individuals struggling with a range of health, social and relational challenges. That’s what we do.

Preble Street volunteer Sage Collins wraps up bean and cheese tacos at the agency’s South Portland Food Security Hub in December. Since March 2020, Preble Street has increased emergency food programs to provide more than 1 million meals a year. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Preble Street is just one of the many social service providers across Maine that supports people experiencing homelessness, hunger and poverty in our communities. But it seems that each year, especially the last few, Preble Street provides more food, shelter and casework than ever before.

Since March 2020, Preble Street has run a wellness shelter at the University of Southern Maine’s Sullivan Gym, opened quarantine and isolation shelters in the Portland area and Lewiston, as well as a temporary emergency shelter to help alleviate the stress on city-run Portland shelters. We started street outreach, community case management and rapid rehousing programs, and we increased emergency food programs to provide more than 1 million meals a year. Our statewide impact also expanded as we housed over a hundred veterans and expanded teen and anti-trafficking services to other parts of the state.

There is no way this agency could have managed to do all this at such a high level of service and care without the incredible dedication and commitment of the Preble Street staff. So many times, I have witnessed colleagues at the agency go above and beyond to ensure someone has shelter for the night, has access to a hot and nutritious meal or has a compassionate and professional social worker listening and trying to help.

Staff at Preble Street, at all levels of the organization, never let up – not even once – during these unprecedented and most challenging of times.

To honor the dedication of front-line staff during the anxious and uncertain early days of the pandemic, in March 2020, the Preble Street board decided to pay time-and-a-half gratitude wages for front-line staff, a 50 percent pay increase. And then the agency went to work raising new private funding and increasing government contracts to support these wage increases in a sustainable way for the agency. Gratitude pay was a temporary solution to a pandemic that has gone on far longer than anyone could have expected; Preble Street spent about $4 million on gratitude pay for more than 400 employees. We are very proud that we could offer this support to our frontline staff.

But, as gratitude pay came to an end, it became clear that Preble Street needed to do more to retain its talented staff and bring new people on board. In January, Preble Street reached out to the Maine Service Employees Association to open negotiations for a new collective bargaining agreement, with the goal of creating an agency-wide, long-lasting change to our wage structure in a way that is sustainable for the long-term health of the organization.

Staying true to the values we share across the agency, we came together at the bargaining table and did just that. All full-time Preble Street employees will now make $40,000 or more each year. This new agreement provides the most benefit for those at the lowest end of our pay scale and makes wages more equitable for all staff. It will help Preble Street retain staff and maintain supportive relationships with clients. It also builds on a shared commitment from all parts of the organization to implementing diversity, equity and inclusion strategies, efforts and initiatives. Combined with a very strong benefits package, we believe that this agreement will help us to ensure that programs can operate at full capacity and provide critical services across the state.

Many people across Maine, including 250 Preble Street employees, rely on Preble Street to be a good steward of this community, and we will continue to do everything in our power to fulfill that trust. This agency does a lot of great work, with a tremendous staff – frontline staff as well as very talented administrative and support teams – working together to assist the most vulnerable. All of us work, day in and day out, in support of our mission: to provide accessible, barrier-free services to empower people experiencing problems with homelessness, housing, hunger and poverty, and to advocate for solutions to these problems.

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