Preble Street: Help and Hope for the Most Vulnerable Mainers

June 1, 2020


As a beacon for people experiencing hunger and homelessness since 1975, Preble Street is no stranger to crisis. Now, 45 years of experience, compassion, and determination are helping the agency respond as the coronavirus pandemic pushes need to new levels.

Many know Preble Street as a soup kitchen that provides meals for people who are homeless, jobless, and living in poverty. In fact, the agency operates over a dozen social service programs that include a resource center, food and housing services, teen support, anti-trafficking services, health services, and advocacy initiatives for people experiencing poverty. These programs benefit 500 people a day—people facing challenging and often overwhelming circumstances including disability, abuse, unemployment, substance use disorder, isolation, and language barriers.

The need for food is dramatically higher

Keeping hunger at bay is one of Preble Street’s largest tasks. Their food programs serve 600,000 meals a year, or 50,000 a month. Since the pandemic took hold, need has surged. In March, Preble Street provided 68,000 meals and distributed 1,650 boxes of groceries. In April, it was 101,110 meals and 2,117 boxes of groceries; up 86% and 193% respectively from 2019.  

The virus not only drove demand for food, it also radically changed how food could be provided. In normal times, Preble Street opens its three soup kitchens for community-style, sit- down meals. The need for physical distance changed all that, forcing a change to meals packaged to go, as well as a complete rejiggering of how volunteers and staff prep and serve.

Physical distancing also presents challenges for caseworker staff to connect with the people they serve. “Something as simple as offering someone a pair of socks after a meal can be the building block that allows us to help with education, health issues, and more,” says Dan D’Ippolito, Community Engagement Director at Preble Street. “Normally our caseworkers in Portland staff meals, and staff at programs like our Veterans Housing Services walk through the woods and along train tracks looking to help people, so right now, outreach is really minimized.”

Preble Street, which provides housing services for homeless men, women, teens and veterans, also began operating a temporary shelter at University of Southern Maine’s Sullivan Gymnasium in April. The shelter was opened to offset overcrowding at the Oxford Street Shelter, where the city is trying to meet physical distancing guidelines to prevent the spread of the virus. The gym can shelter 50 people who have had no exposure to coronavirus and no symptoms.

Amidst these major shifts, Preble Street is also working hard to establish precautions against the virus for guests, staff, and volunteers. “We’re keeping up with the latest CDC guidelines and working closely with Maine Medical Center’s preventive medicine team as things change on a daily basis,” says D’Ippolito. As vital as it is, this too takes more time and resources.

One dollar, seven pounds of food

Preble Street welcomes community support now more than ever, in the form of a donation, volunteering, or advocating. Making a cash donation is the easiest way to make a difference says D’Ippolito, adding that “every dollar donated can become seven pounds of food.” Donations can also help offset the costs of hiring new staff for the temporary shelter, increasing pay to time and half for front-line staff, and purchasing cleaning supplies. In-kind donations of food, clothing, and personal care items like toothpaste and deodorant are also needed.

With more than 6,000 volunteers every year, the agency enjoys strong community support. Preble Street credits many local businesses and organizations, including Martin’s Point, for making it possible for their employees to give their time and energy. Still, the virus has impacted numbers, and volunteers are needed, particularly at the Teen Center.

There’s even one more option: Learn more about homelessness and poverty. “Sign up for action alerts and follow our social media channels for ways to help and get involved,” says D’Ippolito. “Finding solutions for those we serve is an essential part of what we do, and by supporting Preble Street you join us to create opportunity and hope for so many people.”

For more information on supporting Preble Street, including how to donate and volunteer, visit their website, send an email to [email protected], or call 207-775-0026.

Martin’s Point, which has supported Preble Street for a dozen years and counting with financial aid, in-kind donations, and volunteers, recently donated $10,000 and 1,500 containers of hand sanitizer to support the agency’s efforts during the Covid-19 outbreak.

Courtesy of Preble Street

Courtesy of Preble Street

Courtesy of Preble Street