Maine shelters, outreach sites conduct annual homeless count

Posted Jan. 28, 2009, at 9:04 p.m.

A man named Irving sat inside the Bangor Public Library on Wednesday afternoon, slumped against a back wall watching as snow piled up on the ground outside. His heavy winter coat and hat were discarded on the floor nearby for the moment at least.

Within a few hours, Irving would be back on the street.

“It’s not as cold as it’s been,” remarked the man, who preferred not to give his last name. “The snow I can handle.”

From time to time, Irving said he stays with “drinking buddies” who are nice enough to offer him hospitality. Other nights, he ends up at the Bangor Area Homeless Shelter or the Acadia Recovery Community, depending on how much he has had to drink. It’s a rare night that he doesn’t have somewhere to go, particular in the winter months.

“I got myself in this mess,” he said somberly. “Hopefully, I’ll get myself out.”

Shelter and outreach program workers from Portland to Bangor and beyond participated in a heart-rending exercise on Wednesday: They counted, to the best of their resources, all of Maine’s Irvings.

The annual Point-in-Time survey is coordinated through the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development as a way to gather data about certain homeless demographics. The numbers then are used to determine how much funding HUD awards to each service area.

Nancy Fritz, director of homeless initiatives for MaineHousing, which coordinates the homeless count in Maine, said the Point-in-Time survey is an important and effective tool, but it’s not scientific.

“It’s important to note this ‘snapshot’ is a count of people who are homeless on a particular night, and not how many people may be homeless at some point during the year,” she said.

For instance, if someone like Irving didn’t show up at a shelter on Wednesday, it’s likely they were not counted, although Fritz said local police departments and town offices attempt to bridge the gap.

Dennis Marble, director of the Bangor Area Homeless Shelter, and his staff counted about 30 who were staying at the shelter this week, plus several more who filtered in and out during the day.

Marble agreed that the annual survey is beneficial, but he added that identifying demographics is only the first step.

“What we’re not grappling with successfully is how to provide them services, including how to make them more responsible,” he said. “I still find myself scratching my head. There are times when you think about all we do and then you look and say ‘the shelter is still full.’”

Sister Lucille MacDonald, director of the Emmaus Shelter in Ellsworth, said 18 of the facility’s 22 beds were full on Wednesday. In addition to a continually full shelter, MacDonald said she’s seen a big increase in the number of people who come to the shelter seeking nonresidential services, such as food, clothing or help with utilities.

“If we can give them a little bit of help and prevent [homelessness] for another month,” she said, letting her words trail off.

Fritz at MaineHousing said the final homeless tally won’t be released for more than a month, but she wouldn’t be surprised if the numbers were higher than last year.

“Because there are so many variables, though, I don’t know that you can make a direct comparison,” she warned.

But more important than the numbers, Fritz said, are the reasons for homelessness. In past surveys, mental illness, substance abuse and chronic disability are the most common factors.

Casey Harris, program director at the Elijah House, a men’s shelter affiliated with Manna Ministries Inc., said he’s seen an increase this year specifically in the number of young people entering the bleak world of homelessness.

“A lot of what we do centers around treatment of substance abuse, but that intense need among the younger population is troubling,” he said.

Manna is in the process of constructing a family homeless shelter to add to its many services. Currently, there are no shelters in Greater Bangor that can accommodate families. In Portland, officials broke ground earlier this week on Florence House, which will offer 50 beds to homeless women.

Marble said even as more services are being added, homelessness is one of those societal issues that lives perpetually beneath the surface but rarely gets much public notice.

“I was down in Boston a couple years ago visiting family,” Marble recalled. “And I went on a walk through the city. Right there on the sidewalk in front of a restaurant was a guy camped out. My first instinct was to step around him and look away. And I’ve been [working with the homeless] for many years.”

Irving said he’s used to being ignored and doesn’t blame people for looking the other way.

“I probably would, too,” he said.

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