[Hpn] Making the homeless a priority:New report calls for statewide strategy ...;Maine
Morgan W. Brown
Wed, 28 Nov 2001 14:21:04 -0500
Tuesday, November 27, 2001
Portland Press Herald <http://www.portland.com>
Local News section
Making the homeless a priority
By DAVID HENCH, Portland Press Herald Writer
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
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
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Homelessness is a growing problem across Maine, especially in Portland, and
needs to be addressed by a statewide strategy, according to a state report
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
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
"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:
**In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. section 107, this
material is distributed without charge or profit to
those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving
this type of information for non-profit research and
educational purposes only.**
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Morgan W. Brown
Montpelier Vermont USA
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