POLL QUESTION

As need grows and funding shrinks, what is the Bangor homeless shelter’s future?

Steve Rich (left) presents his ideas during a Common Good Ventures Spring Board meeting at the People's United Bank in Bangor Friday morning.  The board made consisting of area business and community leaders discussed ideas about the running and business model of the Bangor Area Homeless Shelter.  On the right is Barbara Irish, facilitator of the discussion.
Steve Rich (left) presents his ideas during a Common Good Ventures Spring Board meeting at the People's United Bank in Bangor Friday morning. The board made consisting of area business and community leaders discussed ideas about the running and business model of the Bangor Area Homeless Shelter. On the right is Barbara Irish, facilitator of the discussion.
Posted March 25, 2011, at 10:26 p.m.

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BANGOR, Maine — Bangor Area Homeless Shelter Director Dennis Marble has initiated numerous discussions in recent months about the future of his 38-bed shelter amid growing demand, shrinking funds and a lack of clear public policy on homelessness.

In almost every instance, he has left those meetings with no clearer sense of direction and focus than before the session started.

A meeting held Friday was no exception, although Marble and members of the shelter’s board of directors said they felt a sense of validation from the many business and civic leaders who gathered to talk about the facility’s plight.

The Bangor shelter was in the spotlight for a session facilitated by Common Good Ventures, a Portland-based firm that assists nonprofit agencies to help improve their performance and bottom line. The firm coordinates “springboard” sessions on a pro bono basis and works regularly with the Maine Community Foundation.

Friday’s nearly two-hour workshop outlined the many challenges Marble and his staff face and tried to identify ways to address some of those.

“A shelter, … it’s not something we’re proud of or should be proud of,” Marble said. “This shouldn’t be the best we can do for people.”

Marble gave an overview of the shelter’s 25-year history and how its operations have evolved over the years. He showed a graphic that tracked the demand over the last decade, which keeps increasing. Last year, the shelter housed 603 people in its 38 beds with the average stay at about one month.

More than 70 percent of clients have a substance abuse problem, a mental health diagnosis, or both. Decades ago, many of those clients were housed in mental health institutions. Now they dominate shelters.

The annual operating budget of about $550,000 has shifted from 60 percent to 70 percent state and federal funds to 60 percent to 70 percent private foundation grants and individual donations. The one bright light, Marble said, is that the Greater Bangor community has always stepped up to assist the shelter.

The options for the shelter’s future that were identified Friday were many: scale back operations, refocus the services it provides, explore more collaboration or expand the number of beds. Each presented additional challenges and opportunities.

From Marble’s perspective, everything comes down to public policy. As long as the state and region lack a clear strategy for addressing not only homelessness but its causes, organizations like his will continue to spin their wheels.

The other giant hurdle is funding. Many of those facing homelessness need stable, affordable housing, but no one is stepping up to create that housing. Instead, the public is paying more to house people in shelters, emergency rooms or jails, Marble said.

Michael Aube of Eastern Maine Development Corp., one of the business leaders who participated in Friday’s session, said the public has become almost comfortable with the state’s homelessness problem.

Others agreed that the public at large needs to understand the problem, look at the faces of the homeless and work toward a clearer focus for how to reduce the number of those faces.

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