Garry Owen House opens transitional residence for homeless vets
Searsmont — Twelve days of intense work, with all labor and materials donated by area contractors and Garry Owen Motorcycle Club members, have transformed the former "Apple Squeeze" on Route 3 into a habitable residence for homeless veterans.
Once insurance is finalized — probably by week's end — the new Garry Owen House will be able, literally, to bring needy vets in from the cold. And board members say there are vets temporarily housed in Bangor and Portland who are ready to come.
"This place two weeks ago — you wouldn't have wanted anybody living here," said Lou Pelletier of Liberty, president of the Garry Owen House board of directors, and project manager for the home. The long-vacant house had been damaged extensively by prior tenants. "The motorcycle club members got together," Pelletier said, "and in two weeks' time, it's livable!"
Pelletier and board member Dana Philippi of Liberty showed off the renovations during an open house Dec. 23 at the 163 Augusta Road property. The many improvements include a new $6,000 steel roof, donated and installed by Warren & Warren Associates, Liberty contractors who also repaired floors and replaced windows, doors and drywall. Dirigo Electric of Newport, owned by veteran Steve Hanson, and Garry Owen House board member Donny Harriman's Maine Replumbing & Heating brought the electrical service and plumbing up to code.
Garry Owen MC members assisted with repairs and gave the interior a fresh coat of paint throughout. The newly furnished house is equipped with beds for six residents plus a resident manager, as well as living room sofas and chairs, and tables and chairs for the eat-in kitchen. A downstairs bathroom includes a shower, and the upstairs bath soon will have a stacked washer and dryer.
"This will be a place where they don't have to be worried about staying warm and eating," said Philippi, who is in charge of programs and operations. "Once a vet is here, we can get him the help he needs."
Garry Owen House will not be providing those services itself, but will draw on services available in the community: transportation through Waldo CAP, for example, as well as services from public health nursing, social workers, Togus VA Medical Center, various veterans' services, and others.
For Garry Owen Motorcycle Club President Warren Ard of Liberty, the opening of the Searsmont facility marks the beginning of a dream coming true. A veteran of the 1st and 7th Air Cavalry Division (1974-78), whose marching song historically has been the Irish tune, "Garryowen," Ard founded the club in 2010 expressly to help fellow vets. To join the club, one must be a veteran or have an immediate family member who is a vet.
When GOMC members discovered they could not obtain federal government 501(c)3 nonprofit status as a motorcycle club, Ard said he approached Lou Pelletier to form the nonprofit Garry Owen House to provide transitional shelter, advocacy and support for homeless veterans. Three years later, with legal work donated by Belfast Attorney Roger Blake, also a vet, Garry Owen House has a fully functioning board of directors (all nine members are veterans, and Ard and Harriman represent GOMC), a set of bylaws, and certification as a 501(c)3 nonprofit. According to Ard, Blake, now retired, "said he would be 'honored' to do this work for us as one of his last acts" before closing the Blake & Hazard law practice.
"I think it's everybody's dream to get homeless people off the street, especially our veterans who have served their country honorably," Ard said. "Statistics say Maine produces more veterans per capita than any other state, and 47 percent of the homeless in Maine are vets.
"Nationally, 87 percent of vets coming home have PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder)," he noted. This is significant because, while other Maine shelters exist for homeless veterans — among them Preble Street in Portland — they will not admit vets suffering from PTSD, he said. Not so at Garry Owen House. "If you have an honorable discharge, we will help you," Ard said.
Board member Philippi emphasized that the Searsmont house is a transitional shelter — not only as temporary housing for homeless veterans in transition back into society, but also as a stepping stone for the organization. "Our ultimate goal is to have a 16-bed shelter on Route 220 in Montville," he said.
When that will happen depends on fundraising. To date the organization has raised about $35,000 of the $700,000 estimated to construct that facility on land near the junction of Routes 220 and 3.
Meanwhile, the board has contracted to use the Searsmont house for the next four years. Under its contract with owner John McCafferty of Searsmont, the nonprofit pays no rent but is responsible for maintenance, insurance coverage and property taxes.
"I'm hoping this will have a ripple effect for others to donate," said McCafferty, who became known in the Midcoast as the 16-year-old sole survivor the 1979 Downeast Airlines crash in Owls Head that took the lives of the commuter plane's two pilots and 15 passengers.
Ard said he has known McCafferty "for years," and knew the house was vacant and that the owner had tried to sell it. When Garry Owen House board members realized they were aiming too high with the 16-bed facility for a near-term solution for homeless vets, Ard approached McCafferty about the property and the deal was struck.
"It's something I've wanted to do for a long time," he said, adding that his vision looks well beyond Waldo County and Maine. "I would like to see a Garry Owen House in every state," he said, "and we're already looking at two other states."
The Augusta Road open house Dec. 23 drew a steady stream of veterans, bikers and community members for afternoon tours and refreshments and later, supper, with all the food donated by No. 13 Tarratine Tribe of Belfast. As a highlight of the celebration, Assistant Pastor Vinnie Green of Charleston Church blessed the house. Green is a U.S. Marine Corps veteran who served in Afghanistan.
Garry Owen House is seeking help in the form of funds, volunteers, services and support. According to Ard, "every cent" of all contributions to Garry Owen House and Garry Owen Motorcycle Club stays in Maine and goes to veterans. Tax-deductible monetary donations can be sent to Garry Owen House, P. O. Box 36, Liberty, ME 04949, or to Bangor Savings Bank, 7 Belmont Ave., Belfast, ME 04915.