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Volunteers give free coffee to people experiencing homelessness in Portland

Volunteers with the Salvation Army Portland Corps started the Holy Grounds restaurant-style service window this summer. It's open Monday through Friday mornings.

PORTLAND, Maine — The issue of homelessness tends to become more visible in the warm summer months in Maine. 

People usually spend more time outside on the streets instead of looking for shelter 24/7 indoors. In many ways, this season serves as a wake-up call and a reminder that this problem has not been solved.

Now, there's a new restaurant-style service window on Cumberland Avenue at the Salvation Army, designed to meet an unmet need for this population: the craving for caffeine. Every weekday from 8:30 a.m. to 10 a.m. at Holy Grounds, volunteers serve free cups of coffee to anyone who wants one. They also hand out whatever snacks are available.

"It gives you a little lead on your pencil. It helps you get a little pep in your step," Captain Michael Harper with the Salvation Army Portland Corps said about Holy Grounds' mission. 

Harper said he noticed there are a lot of food pantries and shelters in the area that provide food and meals for people in need, but there weren't any places offering coffee in particular. He said most shelters also tend to ask people to leave for the day in the morning. He said while a cup of coffee might seem insignificant, it means more than people think. 

"We’re providing a moment of normalcy in people’s lives that maybe are unmanageable right now," Harper said. "Having that cup of coffee, a kind word, a short conversation — those are things that really are building blocks for re-creating the structure in our lives that we need in order to move forward."

Harper added when Holy Grounds opened about five weeks ago, they were only seeing between 10 and 15 people show up. Now, they're seeing between 150 and 160 people per day. It's an indication the need is big. 

"The situation we’re experiencing here in Portland with the unsheltered, the addicted, and the untreated mental health of people that are out on the streets has exploded over the last six months," Harper said.

It's why volunteers like Chuck Liskey are so important to the success of Holy Grounds. Liskey has been working the window since it opened, but it wasn't exactly a new undertaking. He has been volunteering with the Salvation Army Portland Corps since 2011.

"My passion is serving the community, and this gave me the opportunity to do that," Liskey said.

Liskey said he has started to learn who his "regulars" are through small conversations here and there. That human connection and interaction is something he values.

"A lot of them say, 'I had nobody to talk to before,' so they talk to me," Liskey said, later adding, "If you’re kind to that person, that may be the only friendly thing they hear during the day."

Liskey said right now, it seems like there are more people on the streets in Portland in general — including immigrants and people who just can't afford housing.

"It’s not that they’re not trying to get into a place, but it’s just very hard," Liskey said. "The market is not very friendly to people who are homeless right now."

Holy Grounds also helps to connect people with the Salvation Army's Adult Rehabilitation Center in Portland if they're seeking help.

"We can serve men in the area that have issues with drugs and alcohol and homelessness, [along with] those that have lost their way, maybe coming out of incarceration," Stephen Taylor with the Salvation Army's ARC said.

Taylor said the ARC is a six-to-nine-month faith-based rehabilitation center with 66 beds available for men looking for a change.

"We might just be planting seeds now, but maybe that seed planted now will come back to grow later, and somebody might walk up the steps," Taylor said.

Holy Grounds was made possible in part by a $13,000 grant from the Good Shepherd Food Bank in 2021 to help the Salvation Army in Portland revamp its food pantry. Liskey said donations are welcome to help keep Holy Grounds running. People can drop off snacks (like granola bars or chips), water, or monetary donations to 297 Cumberland Ave. between 10 a.m. and 5 p.m. during the week. 

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