Contractors work at Elena’s Way, Preble Street’s renovated wellness shelter, which is scheduled to open at the end of September. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Mark Swann remembers the moment in March 2020 clearly: standing in a masked circle in a gymnasium at the University of Southern Maine trying to figure out with local and state officials how to turn it into an emergency shelter.

There was plenty of space in the Sullivan Gym, but nothing about it felt like a homeless shelter. That turned out to be a good thing.

In just three days, they had it up and running as a shelter for 50 people, following recommendations from public health experts to space beds at least 6 feet apart and avoid situations in which people had to stand close together in a line.

They allowed those staying at the shelter to use their beds around the clock – something almost unheard of in Maine shelters – and offered them access to food and support whenever they wanted it.

“After it was up and running for a while, we’d walk in and get a sense of calm you just do not see in most shelters,” said Swann, executive director of the Portland nonprofit Preble Street. “It was quiet, peaceful and very respectful.”

That shelter model created on the fly worked so well that the organization decided to renovate its existing drop-in resource center to make it more like the gym shelter.


The result is Elena’s Way, a wellness shelter expected to open early next month. The hope is that it will provide stability and healing to unhoused people with complex health and behavioral issues that keep them out of other shelters in Portland.

They don’t go to those other shelters “because those systems aren’t working for them,” said Andrew Bove, Preble Street’s vice president of social work. “We’re trying to figure out ways to solve those issues.”

Preble Street Executive Director Mark Swann and Danielle Smaha give a tour of Elena’s Way, Preble’s Street’s new wellness shelter. The project borrows from the group’s emergency shelter at the University of Southern Maine’s Sullivan Gymnasium, which differed in many ways from traditional homeless shelters in Maine. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Preble Street has operated the resource center on Portland Street since 1993. Before the pandemic, it was dark and crowded. Walls divided up the space, which made it feel cramped. People gathered in the outside courtyard throughout the day, a practice that at times upset neighbors. 

While Preble Street’s shelter plan had broad community support during the city’s review process, it faced opposition from some neighbors who said the agency had not been responsive to complaints in the past. Some opponents also said opening a shelter was contrary to the city’s efforts to break up the cluster of social services concentrated in that area. The city required Preble Street to provide a management plan to address issues including neighborhood concerns, and the agency’s proposal called for periodic neighborhood meetings and a 24-hour number for residents to call with concerns.

The courtyard that used to be open to the neighborhood is now surrounded by wood panels, which provide privacy for clients at the shelter.

Inside the building, walls were removed to create more open spaces. Sleeping sections are divided by half walls. Windows and skylights were added to bring in more natural light, and the walls were painted light blue. A cafeteria and lounge area has large windows that overlook the street but are covered with privacy film so people can’t see in.


Meals will be brought in from the agency’s Food Security Hub in South Portland and will be available to clients whenever they want to eat. Lock boxes near the main entrance will offer them a safe space to store important items like birth certificates and documents. An outlet beside each bed will allow clients to charge their phones easily.

Bove said the shelter will be set up to give clients more autonomy, something people staying in the temporary shelter at USM felt worked well for them.

“People experiencing homelessness often feel they have no choice or control in their lives,” Bove said.

The shelter will be staffed by social workers and will focus on trauma-informed care, which recognizes the impacts of trauma exposure on physical and mental health. The social workers and other Preble Street staff will work with clients to address mental health and substance use issues, connect with services and find permanent housing.

Elena’s Way, Preble’s Street’s renovated wellness shelter, is scheduled to open at the end of September. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Unlike many shelters, Elena’s Way will welcome people of all genders. Nationally, couples are more likely to be unsheltered because they don’t want to split up to go to separate women’s and men’s shelters. At this shelter, couples won’t be able to share a bed, but they’ll be in the same space.

“We’re doing that because we know people who just won’t go to shelters because they’re in a relationship that is really important to them, perhaps more important than getting out of the elements and into a safe space,” Swann said.


The total cost of the Elena’s Way renovation is $3.55 million. MaineHousing provided more than $2 million. The remaining $1.5 million came from private donations to Preble Street’s recent capital campaign, which also raised an additional $15 million to support five other initiatives. Annual operating costs for the shelter are anticipated to be $1.8 million and revenue to support the program will come from private donations, the faith community, MaineHousing and Maine Department of Health and Human Services.

MaineHousing Director Daniel Brennan said the state housing authority doesn’t typically provide capital expenses for these types of projects, but was able to do so this time using pandemic funding from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development intended for programs that address homelessness. MaineHousing chose to give that money to Preble Street’s wellness shelter and to Safe Voices in Farmington.

Brennan said Preble Street’s decision to create a shelter using lessons learned from the temporary shelter was “a smart move.”

Elena’s Way, Preble’s Street’s wellness shelter is scheduled to open at the end of September. ( Derek Davis/Staff Photographer)

“People going through homelessness are dealing with a lot of stress and upheaval. If they have the stability of knowing they have a place to sleep at night, shower and get a cup of coffee, it puts them in a better situation. It’s a model we think works,” he said.

Continuing a Preble Street tradition of naming buildings after social workers and activists, Elena’s Way is named for Elena Schmidt. She was the agency’s first development director and first human resources director and at one time ran the food programs. She’s now the archivist, Swann said, and is somewhat embarrassed by the recognition.

“When we were considering what to name this building and kept talking about healing and warmth and compassion and love combined with professionalism and commitment to the work, it didn’t take us long to think of Elena Schmidt,” Swann said.

Elena’s Way was supposed to be ready to open by mid-September, but supply chain issues pushed that date back. Preble Street staff have started working with the street outreach team and partner agencies to identify people who will stay in it once it opens. The demand is high.

“We could fill the shelter tonight,” Bove said.

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