H.O.M.E. Helps Maine's Rural Poor
Through varied services, a community-style program seeks to do 'with' needy, not 'for' them
UNTIL a year and a half ago, Gary Garzarelli spent several years living in his car with his two cats in rural Maine and then in a one-room, unheated shack until he could no longer bear the bitter cold winter."I was kind of destitute," he says, staring into the distance. "Then I heard about an apartment being open at H.O.M.E." H.O.M.E. is Homeworkers Organized for More Employment. It is located in Orland, a tiny town more than halfway up Maine's winding Route 1, past quaint coastal communities of antique shops and bed-and-breakfast inns. For 21 years this organization has helped a large and growing number of the people most tourists to the "Vacationland" state don't see: the rural poor, homeless, undereducated, and unemployed. H.O.M.E. was founded by then Sister Lucy Poulin in 1970, when a woman knocked on the door of her convent and asked for help in selling quilts. What began as a crafts cooperative, where Maine home crafters could sell their goods, gradually evolved into a small community offering jobs, food, temporary shelter, education, and home ownership to people and families in need. "For their breadth of services and breadth of vision they are certainly unique here," says Peggy Dunn, supervisor of the special-services unit of the Portland, Maine, Social Service Division. Several factors make H.O.M.E. different from most other organizations involved in social work in Maine and around the United States: * H.O.M.E.'s community setting and variety of services. On 23 hilltop acres are a chapel, barn, garden, learning center, day-care center, crafts store, museum, health clinic, food store, cobbler shop, and several craft shops. Four homeless shelters, a shelter for battered women, and a prison program allowing women to serve an alternative sentence with their children are scattered here and in nearby towns. H.O.M.E. also has a land trust and homebuilding program (see related story, below), provides free wo od to the elderly and disabled, gives sanctuary to some Central American refugees, publishes a seasonal newspaper, and distributes food and clothing. * H.O.M.E. is income-producing and receives little government funding. Though it depends on grants and donations, it generates part of its income by selling crafts and relies on its own resources. H.O.M.E. has a woods industry on land it owns. Workers cut trees, mill the wood, build houses, and sell the pulp to paper factories. A garden provides produce. Clothes and other items are sold or given away at its flea markets. "Our biggest goal is to become self-sufficient," says Alice Clair, H.O.M.E.'s person nel director. * H.O.M.E.'s approach. It is part of the Emmaus Movement, an international Christian-based but nondenominational movement that helps poor and homeless people build new lives. There are 38 Emmaus groups in 32 countries, with two in the US (H.O.M.E. and Emmaus House in New York City). As part of the Emmaus movement, H.O.M.E. attempts to work with others in four ways: provide help to those in need; help people develop skills they need to help themselves; develop a community rather than just an individual; e nd prejudice and racism. "We don't do for [people], we do with them," explains Sister Barbara Hance, director of St. Francis Inn Shelter, one of H.O.M.E.'s shelters. "It's really grass-roots people working together and pulling together - it's not a hierarchy." A large number of the nearly 80 staff members who work here were at one time recipients of H.O.M.E.'s help. Since its start, H.O.M.E. has helped thousands of people in this rural section of Maine, says Sister Barbara. Through H.O.M.E.'s rural education program, Mr. Garzarelli, a 10th-grade dropout, obtained his General Education Diploma. He now works full time mowing lawns and doing carpentry work for H.O.M.E. while renting one of four apartments on the grounds. "It's been quite a change," from when he drifted around homeless and often unemployed, he says. In Hancock County, where H.O.M.E. is located, 33 percent of the population lives in poverty, 30 percent are high school dropouts, and 25 percent are illiterate, according to statistics H.O.M.E. compiled several years ago. The recession, lack of jobs, and rising land prices have exacerbated the problem. "There's a very large number of poor people, and the situation's getting worse instead of better," says Ms. Poulin. Conni Palozej says without H.O.M.E.'s help she would never have been able to move into a house. A single mother with four young children, she struggles to make ends meet while working and attending school. For three years she has lived in a house H.O.M.E. built on its land trust. She is now in the process of buying it. EACH year, H.O.M.E. draws about 500 volunteers from all over the US who help build houses, chop wood, and do repairs. John Immerwahr, a philosophy professor at Villanova University in Philadelphia was so impressed with H.O.M.E. when he visited with a volunteer group of students that he nominated Poulin for the honorary doctorate of social science she received at last May's graduation. "It has a kind of magical quality," Dr. Immerwahr says. "They sort of keep their focus on domestic day-to-day concerns, but they're also concerned with worldwide issues, and somehow that blends. So here you are in a center that's dealing with people in rural Maine, and yet there's all these refugees from other countries learning to weave and do all these crafts." Despite its work in the community, some people don't view H.O.M.E. as positively. "H.O.M.E.'s strength is the people, but the people are the poor, so in some circles we're not very popular," says Sister Barbara. The organization has recently run into roadblocks trying to open another shelter for women and children in a building in Ellsworth, a neighboring town. Though opponents have cited the building - on a busy street - as unsafe for children - H.O.M.E. employees say it's a case of the not-in-my-backyard syndrome. "Townspeople don't understand" H.O.M.E.'s purpose, says Ms. Palozej, who adds that the organization needs to educate more people about its efforts. Some individuals have questioned how H.O.M.E. has been so successful. A management consultant who once studied H.O.M.E. said his experience showed the organization couldn't exist unless it spent millions of dollars. But Poulin emphasizes H.O.M.E. isn't run strictly as a business. "There's nothing to make people stay and work here unless they have a commitment to it. Businesses or people who do social dynamics can't measure that." That doesn't mean that H.O.M.E. isn't struggling. "We're always in the red," sighs Sister Barbara. "We keep building houses, and we don't have any money. In a way it's kind of a miracle."