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Facility offers free furniture, appliances to County veterans in need

PRESQUE ISLE, Maine — In Aroostook County, numerous veterans every year find themselves homeless after having served in military combat and returning to the states unable to face the physical and emotional demons that haunt them. Thanks to recent funding, the Presque Isle Elks Lodge has been able to expand a program that helps veterans and their families feel more at ease in a new home.

Since 2017, the Elks Lodge has operated a furniture bank in the Skyway Industrial Park that provides free furniture and appliances to homeless veterans who have recently obtained housing. Elks members Jim Gehring and Gregory Daniels, who are both veterans, coordinate the furniture bank in collaboration with Homeless Services of Aroostook and the Aroostook Veterans Alliance, for which Gehring is a service officer.

Recently, the Elks received a $2,000 grant from the Elks National Foundation that allowed them to buy additional tables and chairs for the furniture. Another $2,000 grant has allowed them to also buy small appliances such as microwaves, toasters, and coffee machines as well as televisions and stereos. Typically, the Elks rely on donations to continue supplying the furniture bank, which can include mattresses, box springs, nightstands, bureaus, lamps, drawers, couches, tables and chairs.

The furniture bank began in 2017 after Alan Harding, exalted ruler for the Elks Lodge, learned of a New England-based company that stores hotel furniture that is no longer used after hotel renovations and refurnishings. With help from the Presque Isle Industrial Council and Falcon Transportation, the Elks soon received two tractor trailer trucks full of hotel bedding and furniture.

“It was a community effort,” Daniels said, about the start of the furniture bank.

For the past eight years, Gehring has helped over 60 veterans and their families through the 501C3 nonprofit Aroostook Veterans Alliance, formally the Disabled American Veterans chapter. After a veteran comes to the Sister Mary O’Donnell Emergency Homeless Shelter in Presque Isle, Gehring interviews them to ask about their specific needs. He then assists them with filing for Maine state veterans benefits and connects them to local medical and mental health services, educational and career opportunities and food pantries.

The furniture bank has played a crucial role in helping veterans readjust to civilian life. While interviewing veterans, Gehring gives them a list of furniture and appliances that are available. Each veteran can choose any amount of items that will meet their needs.

“We’ve served veterans who came to the shelter with nothing but the clothes on their backs and needed everything,” Gehring said.

2018 statistics from the Maine Bureau of Veterans Services show that Aroostook County is home to 6,770 veterans compared to the statewide total of 116,782 veterans. In northern Maine, Gehring noted, it has become more common for veterans to “couch surf” in the homes of family and friends instead of living on the streets, partly due to the region’s cold winter weather.

Many veterans struggle with post traumatic stress disorder, also known as PTSD, and often self medicate using drugs and alcohol. Gehring stated that the exact number of homeless veterans in Aroostook County is difficult to pin down because some become distrustful of government assistance and never ask for help.

“There’s a long list of reasons why veterans become homeless,” Gehring said. “We’re here to help them get the benefits that they’ve earned. The furniture is just one small part of what we do for them.”

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