Safe Affordable Housing Aids Addiction Recovery in Downeast Maine
Substance use disorders can destabilize people’s housing, while the lack of housing, in turn, reduces the chances of recovery. Addiction often causes disruptions in people’s lives that are financial or job related or involve the justice system, all of which undermine the ability to secure and maintain housing. In the 2,000-person town of Machias, Maine, Safe Harbor Recovery Housing is providing housing for women in recovery and their children, if they are mothers. Opened in 2020, Safe Harbor is the only facility of its kind in rural Washington County, where Machias is the county seat. Many in recovery move there from throughout the area because they find it helpful to separate from familiar people, environments, and other triggers that could impede their recovery. Places such as Safe Harbor, organized around helping women along their path to recovery from substance abuse, are particularly needed as a growing housing shortage in the state poses a challenge to securing housing for people striving to move past addiction.
Identifying and Addressing a Community Need
The partner organizations that created Safe Harbor were able to move quickly from the project’s concept to its realization. The idea arose from 2019 meetings of the Washington County Substance Use Response Collaborative, a gathering of more than 25 area nonprofit partners and individuals in recovery who developed options to address the urgent need for recovery housing in the area. In particular, the partners recognized the need for a facility that serves women using a family recovery approach, in which residents are able to live together with their children (rather than their children not being allowed to live at Safe Harbor at all). When appropriate, Safe Harbor tries to support reunification efforts between resident mothers and children not currently together.
One partner, Downeast Community Partners, the nonprofit that currently manages Safe Harbor, owned a building that had previously served as a shelter for victims of domestic violence. Supported by a $150,000 grant from the Maine Housing Authority, partners were able to convert the building into longer-term housing. Healthy Acadia — an area nonprofit engaged in wide-ranging, health-related work, including substance abuse prevention and recovery — manages the day-to-day operation of Safe Harbor. Other partners actively involved in helping Safe Harbor residents include Aroostook Mental Health Services, which provides assessment and treatment options for residents, and the Community Caring Collaborative, an area consortium with additional resources for addressing substance use disorders.
Safe Harbor Recovery Home can house up to five women and their children at any given time. Each family has a private unit, although the kitchen and bathroom facilities are shared. Thanks to a grant from the Maine Community Foundation’s Washington County Fund, the units come furnished, and the property offers a swing set for residents’ children. Volunteer labor helped maximize the available renovation funding and supported the transformation of the building into recovery housing. Residents are charged $110 per week in rent — a necessity, says Healthy Acadia recovery programs director Penny Guisinger, to help sustain program operations. (Having some ability to pay is a prerequisite for residency.) During the coronavirus pandemic, residents benefited from the wider availability of rental relief, reducing the burden for many to approximately $10 per week. As of early 2022, Safe Harbor has served a total of 13 women and 13 children.
The Unique Needs of Recovery Housing
Recovery housing plays an important role in the overall toolkit of supportive and affordable housing. It centers on peer support to facilitate recovery and is distinct from other housing models, such as permanent supportive housing or a Housing First approach. For example, whereas the Housing First model does not make sobriety a condition of housing, Safe Harbor relies on testing and vetting of prospective tenants. Residents must also consent to random searches of their rooms. In addition, Safe Harbor uses drug and alcohol testing to promote accountability, says Katie Sell, a community health coordinator for Healthy Acadia and Safe Harbor’s manager. These measures help ensure the safety of the residents’ children. These requirements have been implemented not to punish residents but to promote safety and an environment conducive to recovery. A positive test result, reports Sell, often is used not to expel residents from Safe Harbor but instead as useful tool to discuss the challenges they are facing in their recovery and as an opportunity to move forward in recovery.
Healthy Acadia also works with recovery coaches to help residents overcome obstacles and navigate challenges. A coach might encourage residents to articulate what they want their recovery to look like and decide what kind of treatment makes the most sense for them. Because Safe Harbor does not have live-in staff, Healthy Acadia also promotes peer-to-peer support among residents.
Safe Harbor does not restrict the length of time that residents may stay, and Healthy Acadia will work with housing advocates to assist residents with their housing search and applications for voucher programs when they decide they are ready to move on. As Sell describes, Safe Harbor allows residents the ability to stabilize their lives, develop an appropriate recovery plan, and access available resources. As people move on, Safe Harbor welcomes new residents needing a safe, supportive environment in which to address their substance use disorders.
National Coalition for the Homeless. 2009. “Substance Abuse and Homelessness.” Accessed 10 January 2022; Healthy Acadia. 2020. “Women’s Recovery Residence Now Accepting Applications,” press release, 21 August. Accessed 10 January 2022; Data Commons. 2018. “Place Explorer: Machias.” Accessed 10 January 2022. ×
Healthy Acadia. 2020. “Women’s Recovery Residence Now Accepting Applications,” press release, 21 August. Accessed 10 January 2022; Correspondence with Katie Sell, manager, Safe Harbor Recovery Home for Women and Children, 29 December 2021. ×
Healthy Acadia. 2020. “Women’s Recovery Residence Now Accepting Applications,” press release, 21 August. Accessed 10 January 2022; Joint interview with Katie Sell, manager, Safe Harbor Recovery Home for Women and Children, and Penny Guisinger, recovery programs director, Healthy Acadia, 29 December 2021; Healthy Acadia. n.d. “Mission.” Accessed 10 January 2022; Aroostook Mental Health Services. n.d. “Substance Use Services.” Accessed 10 January 2020; The Community Caring Collaborative. n.d. “About Us.” Accessed 10 January 2022; The Community Caring Collaborative. N.d. “Substance Use & Recovery.” Accessed 10 January 2022. ×
Joint interview with Katie Sell, manager, Safe Harbor Recovery Home for Women and Children, and Penny Guisinger, 29 December 2021; Maine Community Foundation. 2021. “Forward: Report to the Community, 2020-2021.” Accessed 10 January 2022. Ellsworth Area Chamber of Commerce. n.d. “Safe Harbor Recovery Residence Celebrates One Year.” Accessed 10 January 2022; Healthy Acadia. n.d. “Safe Harbor Policies.” Document provided by Healthy Acadia; Correspondence with Katie Sell, 29 December 2021. ×
Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. n.d. “Recovery Housing: Best Practices and Suggested Guidelines.” Accessed 10 January 2022; Dennis P. Watson, Valery Shuman, James Kowalsky, Elizabeth Golembiewski, and Molly Brown. 2017. “Housing First and harm reduction: a rapid review and document analysis of the US and Canadian open-access literature.” Harm Reduction Journal 14, 30. Accessed 10 January 2022; Healthy Acadia. n.d. “Safe Harbor Policies.” Document provided by Healthy Acadia; Joint interview with Katie Sell and Penny Guisinger, 29 December 2021. ×
Healthy Acadia. 2020. “Women’s Recovery Residence Now Accepting Applications,” press release, 21 August. Accessed 10 January 2022; Joint interview with Katie Sell and Penny Guisinger, 29 December 2021. ×
Joint interview with Katie Sell and Penny Guisinger, 29 December 2021. ×