BELFAST — Unseen amid the quiet beauty of Belfast and the surrounding area, a growing number of residents struggle to find affordable housing and pay for basic needs. Nonprofits, government agencies and municipalities are finding their services in ever-greater demand.

Belfast Soup Kitchen Executive Director Cherie Merrill said the need for her agency’s services has increased dramatically since the pandemic began. In March 2020 there were 75 to 100 meals served per day, but now the Soup Kitchen averages about 300 meals daily. It serves residents throughout Waldo County.

In 2020, the Soup Kitchen served 38,000 meals, but by October 2021, it had served 75,000, a 97.4% increase compared to last year, she said.

The agency has been able to offer new services, like takeout, through collaborations with other organizations and businesses, she said.

More than just food

“And we are really, really working hard to reduce the stigma of utilizing the soup kitchen, even though our name is ‘Soup Kitchen.’ We really prefer to be thought of as a community hub for food access and also as an access point to other services,” she said.

One of those collaborations is with Trillium Caterers in Belfast to offer a fully prepared meal once a week for a family of four, she said. The Soup Kitchen provides the food for Trillium to prepare and package.

While most children were still in remote learning last year, it started offering seven days’ worth of breakfasts and lunches for youth in the county up to age 18 in October 2020, Merrill said. That program ran until this past August and will run during the summers only in the future.

The agency also collaborates with Waldo County Bounty and Daybreak Growers Alliance to offer a weekly farm box filled with $30 worth of fresh local produce for families that do not qualify for public assistance programs but still struggle financially.

The Soup Kitchen works with several other nonprofits to offer services to those in need throughout the county, she said. In addition, a social service representative from Waldo Community Action Partners visits the Soup Kitchen once a week to help connect people with resources they may be eligible for. Individual and private social service workers use the facility to meet with people also. The Belfast public health nurse visits weekly.

Even though the Soup Kitchen focuses on offering food to those who need it, agency staff are also aware of other major issues people face, like the lack of affordable housing, heating assistance and transportation, Merrill said. With the help of Belfast General Assistance, Waldo CAP and the city’s public health nurse, the Soup Kitchen has helped house some of its homeless guests.

“Our focus is food, but we want to make sure we provide that access to other services so that people can fix the whole problem, so that hopefully the food insecurity issue is lessened,” she said.

‘Down on their luck’

The Admiral’s Ocean Inn in Belfast and Searsport Suites in Searsport are at maximum capacity with low-income families or individuals who cannot find or afford housing or need emergency housing, according to Property Manager Daniel Wing.

Admiral’s Ocean Inn has 16 rooms, 12 of which are reserved for long-term housing and four for short-term housing, he said. Searsport Suites has 14 rooms, of which 10 are designated for long-term housing and four for short-term. All but two units at Admiral’s Ocean Inn house families, he said. Searsport Suites houses primarily singles, because the rooms are smaller.

Admiral’s Ocean Inn has been accepting people who need emergency housing since before the pandemic, but the demand for emergency housing took off after the public health emergency started, Wing said. He has seen the housing crisis get worse over the last few years and thinks the local real estate boom has contributed to the problem.

“But then when COVID hit, nobody really had anywhere to go,” he said. “So then we kind of started doing long-term. We’ve kind of just stuck with it because the housing crisis is getting kind of rough around here.”

Much like Merrill at the Belfast Soup Kitchen, Wing works with multiple agencies and organizations to help people find emergency housing.

Both motels accept people from up and down the Midcoast, with several guests being from the Rockland area, he said. Most guests keep their rooms clean, go to work and do not cause disturbances. He thinks many of them are just “down on their luck right now.”

“They’re coming from all over because there’s just nowhere else to house people in,” he said. “The motels out in that area (Rockland) are full with people.”

Tricia Harrell has been staying at Admiral’s Ocean Inn with her two children since July, she said. Her husband had been staying there as well until recently, when she split up with him after he assaulted her.

They were living on benefits in his name and now she does not know if she will be able to make rent before the end of the month, when she can apply for public assistance for herself and her kids. The Knox County Homeless Coalition has been helping them pay rent at the motel, but much of the assistance they received was through her husband.

Harrell grew up in Florida, but had been living in an apartment in Camden with a Section 8 housing voucher, she said. She was evicted in early 2021 after living there for seven years. Her kids attend school in Regional School Unit 71, where her autistic son is doing better, so she would like to stay in this area and away from Camden.

The space they are in now is small, so she has to limit how much food and how many personal care items she buys, she said. She also does not have a stove, further limiting what she can buy. She has help with transportation to appointments through the Knox County Homeless Coalition, but does not have reliable transportation to other places.

Greater awareness needed

Wing encourages people to reach out to local social service agencies, like Waldo CAP, to donate money. People are not aware of the housing crisis going on around them and how it is affecting some people, he said.

Merrill said local organizations and agencies must continue building partnerships and educate people better about how to address the major issues affecting low-income and homeless people. She also encourages people to support those agencies by volunteering or donating. She wants the Soup Kitchen to continue to be a resource for people who need it.

“It could be your neighbor and people aren’t always vocal about it because people are proud, and they should be,” she said. “And we just want to make sure we’re here for anybody who needs help.”

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