Portland developer’s change of plan opens doors for homeless or recovering women

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Developer Kevin Bunker purchased the historic brick building in Portland’s desirable West End more than three years ago. His goal was to turn what was there into condominiums that would almost certainly sell cheaply in a booming real estate market.

Somewhere along the way, however, he took a different direction.

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

Something more interesting has grown into a 38 unit transitional housing complex for homeless women who also struggle with substance use disorders. This is a one-of-a-kind partnership between Bunker’s company, Developers Collaborative, social service agency Amistad, MaineHousing and others.

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

The $ 6.5 million project ran for two years, but the first residents started moving late last month and more will follow. Many will come from hotel rooms that have been used by the city to house the homeless as shelters overflow. Filling in 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. Governor Janet Mills, among others, will be on hand to celebrate the accomplishment.

The house will be called Freedom Place, a name with two senses, one of which is quite personal to the Bunker family.

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Bunker, one of Portland’s best-known developers, has built a reputation for its community-driven projects, most notably the City of Portland’s 200+ bed homeless shelter in the Riverton neighborhood. But that wasn’t necessarily his first thought for 66 State St.

The building, which once housed the St. Dominic Boys Parish School, was owned by Catholic Charities Maine, but the long-time 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 recovering from a substance use disorder. Gregory Rec / Personal photographer

The sale meant that Amistad would have to find a new home after nearly 30 years, although Bunker assured the agency he would give them enough time to move out. Over time, however, he got to know the staff and the people they served, and his outlook on his latest acquisition changed.

“He really cared about what we were doing,” said Meredith Pesce, Associate Executive Director of Amistad. “I don’t know if a lot of developers would do this.”

Five years ago, Amistad created its first transitional housing project, an eight-bed unit called Beacon House. The mission was simple. Give homeless people what they need most: a home.

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

This is what happened to Jenni Chapman, a former resident of Beacon House and now an Amistad staff member.

“There was no way I could continue living if I stayed on the streets,” said Chapman, 51, who has been recovering for four years and lives in his own apartment with two roommates.

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

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The building at 66 State Street was large enough to provide many more rooms for recovering homeless women, but completing the project turned out to be slightly more complicated than if Bunker had simply developed condos.

The partners were eager to help.

First, the project was eligible for historic tax credits, which reduced the burden on the Bunker and made funding a bit easier.

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

A common staging area on the third floor of Freedom Place. Gregory Rec / Personal photographer

Amistad is committed to staffing residents, a prospect that became easier after its peer center found its new home on India Street, where the city’s public health clinic was located.

But that was not enough.

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

MaineHousing, the state housing authority, stepped in and pledged to provide 25 income-eligible women who remain there.

“This project implements a national best practice, helping some of our most vulnerable citizens,” said Maine Housing Director Daniel Brennan. “This is part of a larger statewide effort to help those who cycle in and out of homeless people 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 learned during his tenure in that role how vital safe and stable housing is for people in recovery, especially women in recovery.

“Historically, we have done a lot of harm in trying to tackle this epidemic,” he said. One example, he said, was stopping a person’s treatment upon relapse or recurrence of uses. It won’t happen here.

Smith said he would like to see more developers like Bunker see the value of these types of projects.

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

Bunker is still planning to develop private accommodation on the site as well – around 30 apartments at market price – later this year.

And it has already been approached by other partners on similar projects for vulnerable populations.

“I would like to do more,” he said.

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Like so many Mainers, Bunker has a personal connection to the opioid epidemic. Her only brother died of a drug overdose in 2001, a time when drug-related deaths were much less common than today.

Developer Kevin Bunker and his daughter Alex stand in a room in Freedom Place in Portland. Gregory Rec / Personal photographer

Then, in June 2020, when his latest project was in full swing, another close to him passed away: his ex-wife, Freedom Hamlin, the mother of his teenage daughter, Alex.

Alex Bunker said she was aware of her mother’s substance use as a daughter, but was still stunned by her death. She had tried to undergo treatment shortly before her fatal overdose, but that did not happen. Alex often wondered if her mother’s death could have been avoided if she had had access to supportive housing away from the factors that allowed her to use drugs.

Liberty hamlin Courtesy of the family

Indeed, the challenges for women recovering or facing homelessness are often greater. Chapman said she was often harassed when she was on the streets or in a shelter and feared she would be assaulted. Pesce added that the field of recovery has always been dominated by men.

“It 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 came up with the idea of ​​giving it the name Freedom. But only if his daughter was on board.

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

Alex said his mother was an artist and jewelry designer. Her favorite type of design was a butterfly, which is now part of the Freedom Place logo. She hopes the women who come out of this will heal and get their lives back, and perhaps learn more about the establishment’s namesake along the way.

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