[Hpn] Making the homeless a priority:New report calls for statewide strategy ...;Maine

Morgan W. Brown norsehorse@hotmail.com
Wed, 28 Nov 2001 14:21:04 -0500


-------Forwarded article-------

Tuesday, November 27, 2001
Portland Press Herald <http://www.portland.com>
[Maine]
Local News section
Making the homeless a priority
<http://www.portland.com/news/local/011127homeless.shtml>

By DAVID HENCH, Portland Press Herald Writer

--[Sidebar]

SEEKING SHELTER

Maine has seen a steady increase in the number of times people have had to 
seek refuge in a municipal shelter over the past eight years, according to 
state figures.

Annual use of shelter beds grew 69 percent statewide between 1993 and 2000, 
as the number of clients served jumped from 127,031 eight years ago to 
214,248 last year. The number is projected to grow an additional 12 percent 
by the end of this year.

In Portland, which served 87,732 clients last year, the increase over the 
past eight years has been 102 percent.

The high cost of rent forces individuals and families into shelters and onto 
the street.

--[End of sidebar]


Homelessness is a growing problem across Maine, especially in Portland, and 
needs to be addressed by a statewide strategy, according to a state report 
released Monday.

Substance abuse and mental illness continue to be major contributors to the 
problem of homelessness, evidence shows, but increasingly the high cost of 
renting in Portland is forcing individuals and families into shelters and 
onto the street.

The 49-page report, "A Proposal to Reduce Homelessness - Maine's Strategic 
Plan," was released Monday by Gov. Angus King, who supports its 
recommendations. The report was assembled by staff of the Maine State 
Housing Authority, Department of Human Services and Department of Behavioral 
and Developmental Services.

"We needed to essentially send the message to the governor that this process 
of reducing homelessness in Maine won't work unless we have a highly 
synergistic effort between the three major agencies," said Michael Finnegan, 
director of the Maine State Housing Authority.

The report calls for the state to:

Make reducing homelessness a priority.

Better coordinate the services offered to homeless people by different state 
agencies.

Find efficiencies in how those services are delivered so more can be 
accomplished without spending more money.

The report suggests emergency shelters should become the place where service 
providers meet with clients and potential clients. That would improve 
treatment programs for people battling addictions and coping with mental 
illness, two major factors in the surge in homelessness. It would also help 
caseworkers identify people who are eligible for medical, housing or food 
assistance programs but don't know it.

"It's not enough to just create more shelters and put people in them," 
Finnegan said. "We need to understand what their issues are . . . (and) 
address the issue of why people are becoming homeless in the first place."

Finnegan said Monday's report describes the problem and "lays the foundation 
for a work plan" that will be developed in the next six to 12 months.

Gerald Cayer, director of Portland's Health and Human Services Department, 
said he welcomes the state's initiative regarding a problem that extends 
beyond local boundaries.

"I think it's an encouraging sign when state government comes out and 
indicates the issue of homelessness is a priority and will be viewed as a 
priority through state departments," Cayer said. "It's like we're all on the 
same page now."

Mark Swann, executive director of the Preble Street Resource Center, also 
welcomed the state's interest in the problem of homelessness, but wished the 
report had gone further.

"The good news is that the issue of homelessness and the increase in 
homelessness may now finally be getting some recognition at levels of the 
state government where it hasn't before," said Swann. "But why has it taken 
so long?

"Many of us waited a whole year for this report, to get some strategies. The 
meat of this report says we're going to have another report in a year with 
strategies," he said. "The best they can do is say 'Give us a year and we'll 
have an action plan.' "

Finnegan said the report does codify the root causes of homelessness and how 
Maine's problem has mirrored the problem throughout the country. The issues 
may be familiar to people who work with the homeless, he said, but the 
report is a necessary step in focusing the efforts of state government more 
directly on the problem.

Portland's tight housing market has led to a steep increase in the cost of 
renting an apartment, which some people say has added a new group to the 
ranks of the homeless.

"We're seeing more and more people who are economic refugees, pushed into 
the shelter network," Swann said.

Jean Pettis says she and her children fit that category.

Pettis was finally able to get a spot at Portland's family shelter on 
Chestnut Street on Monday after spending weeks in a hotel. The stay was paid 
for with city vouchers.

Pettis says she has been homeless since she lost her $675-a-month apartment 
in October. That apartment is now renting for $850, she said.

"I grew up on Munjoy Hill and now I can't believe the prices they want up 
there," said Pettis. She is looking for an affordable apartment for her and 
her 12-year-old daughter Ashley. Her son Derek, 21, has been staying at the 
Oxford Street shelter while he tries to find subsidized housing he can 
afford with his $531-a-month disability check.

"There are people who just live there," he said of the Oxford Street 
shelter. "They give up too easy."

The unusually mild autumn has postponed the worst of the homeless crisis 
this year. Still, social service providers say they are worried because 
homeless shelters are already beyond capacity.

"I've never gone into a winter with such fears and worries for the people on 
the street," Swann said. "The people we serve are going to be definitely 
hunkered down into a survival mode this year. I'd like to think we could be 
looking past that."

Staff Writer David Hench can be contacted at 791-6327 or at: 
dhench@pressherald.com

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Morgan <norsehorse@hotmail.com>
Morgan W. Brown
Montpelier Vermont USA




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