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Safe Voices celebrates new shelter in Farmington for survivors of domestic violence

Annie Twitchell for The Daily BulldogRead full story here

FARMINGTON – Everyone deserves to be safe. This is a core concept behind Safe Voices, an organization focused on supporting survivors of domestic violence and human trafficking in Franklin, Oxford, and Androscoggin County. On Monday, April 3, Safe Voices celebrated the opening of their new shelter, Lupine Landing, located in the center of Franklin County.

Dozens of people from the federal, state, and local government, local law enforcement agencies, and community partners gathered at the secure shelter for a tour of the facility and a ribbon cutting ceremony.

Maine Housing director Dan Brennan, Maine Coalition to End Domestic Violence executive director Francine Garland Stark, Safe Voices executive director Elise Johansen, and Congressman Jared Golden cut the ribbon to officially open Safe Voices’ new shelter and renovated resource center in Farmington.

The building was originally owned by Franklin Memorial Hospital and donated to Safe Voices for their use. Over the last two years the organization has focused energy and resources into renovating the structure to create four emergency shelter rooms and two residential apartments. Funding came from Maine Housing, several federal sources, the Franklin County Commissioners, other grants, and various donations.

To better serve survivors of domestic violence and human trafficking, Safe Voices has been working to identify and remove barriers. The building is compliant with ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) requirements to offer a safe space for individuals with mobility challenges or other disabilities. Each unit is designed for safety for children and adults. One example of an accessible safety feature is the smoke detectors and fire alarms that give a visual warning in addition to an audible warning.

The facility is located in Farmington, the center of Franklin County. Survivors may be more likely to seek shelter if they can stay near their work, school, and family. Traveling to Lewiston or elsewhere in the state for safe shelter can be a major barrier for survivors, but the location in Farmington may be more accessible.

Safe Voices was the first domestic violence organization in the state to provide pet-friendly housing, although they are no longer the only one. Pets are important to many people and that needs to be factored into a survivor’s safety plan.

Safe Voices Executive Director Elise Johansen noted that in 80% of households with pets where domestic violence takes place, the pets are also subjected to violence. However, survivors may choose to stay in an unsafe environment if the only options are to surrender their pet to an animal shelter or to leave the pet in that unsafe environment.

By creating a safe space that allows survivors to bring their pets with them, Safe Voices hopes to open more doors and promote better safety.

Pictured in the left is one corner of a pet patio attached to one housing unit. To the right, the enclosed off-leash yard for exercising pets. For the safety and comfort of guests, pets are required to be leashed in the communal spaces so the exercise yard gives a safe space for a break.

In the emergency shelter, there are four rooms, two single-occupancy and two double-occupancy. There is a communal kitchen and living room, and a large enclosed yard with an additional off-leash space for pets. Two of the rooms have attached pet patio yards to give residents greater flexibility if they need to leave their pet at the shelter while they go to work or appointments. In addition, travel cribs can be set up for survivors with young children.

There are also two residential apartments. These units have Maine Housing vouchers so the residents pay 30% of their income for monthly rent. Each apartment is a single-bedroom unit with the same pet-friendly and accessibility features as the emergency shelter rooms, but it allows more independence for residents while still providing a secure living situation with easy access to resources if they need them.

Attending the ribbon cutting ceremony were Congressman Jared Golden, representatives from the offices of Senator Susan Collins and Senator Angus King, Maine State Representative Scott Landry, Franklin County Commissioner Bob Carlton, and representatives from Farmington Police Department, Wilton Police Department, Franklin County Sheriff’s Office, Maine Housing, Maine Coalition to End Domestic Violence, Western Maine Community Action, Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Services, and Greater Franklin Development Council.

Oliver, a therapy dog in training with Safe Voices.

Safe Voices partners with the other community resource groups in the area such as SAPARS, WMCA, and Western Maine Behavioral Health. Safe Voices provides a specific service and by partnering with other groups and agencies they can ensure that survivors receive all the resources and services they need to heal, thrive, and move forward.

When talking about domestic violence, it is important to remember that not everyone will choose to flee an unsafe situation. Safe Voices offers support and resources for anyone. In addition to the housing units, the newly renovated space includes a conference room for law enforcement, Safe Voices, and community partners to meet and help survivors create a safety plan. There are also offices for advocates and staff.

Lupine Landing is just the first step of the work Safe Voices hopes to do in Maine. With the housing crisis impacting available options for survivors, Safe Voices is starting the planning process to build more studio apartment units on a piece of land the organization already owns.

“It is so incredibly gratifying to see all this hard work — from so many individuals — come to fruition with the opening of this shelter,” Johansen said. “We have been doing work in Franklin County for 45 years, but never with a shelter behind us, and we are so happy to be able to add this shelter and enhanced resource center to services available for survivors in our community.”

The finishing touch? Students from Del Harris’s Building Construction class at the Foster Tech Center donated their time and materials to build a set of outdoor furniture for the shelter facility. These students worked with Safe Voices over the last couple months to determine what the shelter needed and what would work best for the space, and then built the furniture. The students delivered the furniture pieces to the facility for the ribbon cutting and had the opportunity to tour the facility and meet with community and legislative partners.