A long-planned residence for men and women with mental illnesses is expected to open early next year in Portland’s West End, more than three years after the property was acquired and two years after it received Planning Board approval.
Portland-based nonprofit Shalom House purchased the property at 30 Mellen St. from York County Shelter Programs in 2018. It includes a main building and a carriage house, and was previously known as Serenity House, a sober house that operated for 50 years.
Shalom House plans to offer both independent living apartments and spaces that provide tenants with onsite mental health services at a time when such residences are becoming hard to find.
Norman Maze, Shalom House housing director, last week said renovations are scheduled to be complete by mid-December.
He said the first two floors of the main house will have shared living spaces for tenants who require mental health services, and the third floor will be for people in need of fewer services. The carriage house will mostly be housing for families where at least one member qualifies based on a disability.
The buildings were utilized in a similar way by Serenity House, Maze said. The main house served the substance use program, and men who had graduated from Serenity House lived more independently in the adjacent building.
Maze said it was important to Shalom House to give those residents a place to live after their former program shut down. The nonprofit offered them the choice to continue living at the residence, he said, but many of the men found other housing.
“We didn’t want to make them homeless,” Maze said. “We have one remaining resident and once we have finished the units in the main house we’ll be able to move him there, where he’ll have a one-bedroom (apartment).”
The Mellen Street property will be the 27th owned and operated by Shalom House, which also has facilities located in Westbrook, South Portland, Saco, and Biddeford. Maze said the properties offer various services, ranging from some that are staffed with mental health personnel 24/7, to independent housing that has a support worker a few hours per week.
Renovations to the main property on Mellen Street included updating kitchens and bathrooms, painting, and breaking up spaces to create kitchen and bathroom space for more units. Updating the fire alarm, sprinklers, lighting, and boilers was also part of the process.
Design of the project is by Portland-based Shields Architecture, and the contractor is Hardypond Construction.
Part of what took the new initiative more than three years to come to fruition, Maze said, was securing funding. The project was funded by the Federal Home Loan Bank of Boston, Norway Savings Bank, the Maine State Housing Authority, and Genesis Community Loan Fund.
Constructing a program like the one that 30 Mellen St. will contain is getting “more and more complicated,” Maze said. For Shalom House to develop a property, he said, the nonprofit must take into account both the acquisition price and the cost of renovations, without the need for “astronomical” updates.
The rising cost of real estate in southern Maine is also a factor.
“Those are some of the challenges, finding properties that are affordable or at least (affordable enough to renovate),” he said. “Even though we’re a nonprofit you can’t operate at a loss forever.”
The organization has run into financial issues in the past, and five years ago had to shut down its Community Integration Program because of a lack of funding.
Demand, on the other hand, is constant: Maze said “there never seem to be enough services” for Mainers who need them, and services for substance use disorders are particularly difficult to find right now.
Shalom House always has a waitlist, he said, like any agency offering affordable housing.
As far as the reception West End residents have given the project, Maze said he has met with members of the local neighborhood association, and no one had major concerns. He attributed that to Shalom House’s positive track record and the fact that program facilitators will have a daily presence at the residence.
“There’s always going to be stigma and misinformation about people who are suffering from mental illness,” Maze said. “(But) once we have a presence in a neighborhood they understand we’re not just going to be absentee landlords. We’re in it for the long haul.”