After being unhoused for two years, including time spent sheltered at the Comfort Inn in Scarborough, Shelley Williams now has an apartment in Portland. Her experience taught her that “you can’t take anything for granted.”

Two years ago, Shelley Williams was living at the Comfort Inn in Scarborough, which operated as a temporary homeless shelter during the pandemic.

After being on a waiting list for more than a year, Williams now has an apartment at Avesta Housing’s Wessex Woods in Portland. She is a success story, said Lauren Dembski-Martin, social services navigator for the town of Scarborough.

“She has been on quite a journey,” Dembski-Martin said. “She made some really positive changes in her life after being unhoused.”

It was an eye-opening journey, according to Williams, and living at the hotel with dozens of other unhoused people was an unpleasant experience for her.

The Comfort Inn and other hotels in the area contracted out as shelters when the COVID-19 pandemic restricted capacity at existing shelters. At the same time, demand for shelter space was high because pandemic-related unemployment and rising inflation caused the number of unhoused Mainers to skyrocket and a surge of asylum seekers arrived in Portland in 2021.

As of last week, all but seven of the 69 rooms sheltering the homeless at the Comfort Inn in Scarborough had been vacated and the hotel is expected to resume normal operations after May 31. In South Portland, seven hotels were given a June 30 deadline to stop operating as shelters, and two others have transferred their unhoused clients to another hotel in the city.


Williams, from Belfast, owned a residential cleaning business and was accustomed to the financial security that came with it, she said. But during the pandemic, a perfect storm of work, personal, family and relationship issues necessitated that she move. In a tight and expensive housing market, she had nowhere to turn.

“Everything was crashing down,” Williams told The Forecaster.

She came to Portland, and a social services agency placed her at the Comfort Inn.

While she was grateful to have a roof over her head, her experience at the hotel shelter “was not good,” she said. In one instance, she had a knife pulled on her. In another, she was verbally assaulted in a hotel elevator.

“There were other people there that caused disturbances that they should have been kicked out (for). They never were,” she said. “It’s not a good environment.”

Once at Wessex Woods, which provides resident services and resources, Williams received a mental health diagnosis and that gave her access to the tools she needed to deal with it, including counseling and a psychiatrist. Before her diagnosis, “I didn’t know,” she said. “I was dealing with all of this (other stuff), too. How the heck I did it is beyond me.”


In the success stories she’s witnessed, Dembski-Martin said, connecting people with resources and support services, whether that be family and friends or professional help, is a large factor.

Many of the residents at Wessex Woods were once sheltered at the Scarborough Comfort Inn, Williams said. The apartment building is a better environment than the hotel, but she still has to be careful.

“You’re dealing with mental issues, you’re dealing with personal issues, addiction – you tend to clash with those personalities in one building,” Williams said. “You’re safe, and you’ve got a roof over your head, but you still have to watch out for your peers.”

Her journey over the past two years has been humbling.

“I had my own business for years,” she said. “Now, I’m at this point here. I’ve been in these two different worlds.

“You can’t take anything for granted.”

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