MACHIAS, Maine — The Washington County Food and Fuel Alliance has worked for years to solve food security issues, assist the 12 food pantries that serve the county and educate local folks about healthful food choices. On Tuesday, the growing problem of homelessness was added to its list.
More and more of the people coming into food pantries for assistance are seeking help beyond pasta and potatoes, and more than a dozen WCFFA representatives of pantries, social service agencies and nutrition educators shared their experiences.
“We are even getting asked to help with funeral expenses,” one supervisor said, while others noticed that the face of the homeless is also changing to now include the working poor.
“Homelessness is an extremely dangerous symptom of poverty,” Jack Kelling, the homeless services coordinator of the Washington Hancock Community Agency.
Larry Finnegan of the Jonesport Food Pantry said his service recently began helping a family with five children. “The father was an investment analyst but obviously the financial world has been changing over the past several years,” Finnegan said. “Now that man is digging worms four hours a day to survive.”
Kelling said the people who come to him for help are not lazy. “They desperately want to find a job,” he said. It could be a medical crisis, a divorce, a fire — Washington County has had six house fires since January — that pushes a family over the edge into homelessness.
“If the person is a young, healthy male, able-bodied but a high school dropout, I tell them to look for opportunity elsewhere,” Kelling said. “There is nothing for them here.”
Kelling said his agency has served 375 homeless people in the last year and a half, including 125 children under the age of 18. Susan Farley of WHCA said she has assisted 16 “couch surfers” — homeless people temporarily staying with friends or family — in the last six months. Financial support for re-housing ran out in October of 2010 and support for Kelling’s position will end this October.
“We have such limited resources,” Farley said. “Now we are reaching out to communities.” Kelling and Farley said every subsidized rental unit in Washington County has at least a three month waiting list and there are no shelters in Washington County to serve the general populace.
There are two shelters in Washington County but they serve the Passamaquoddy Tribe and domestic violence victims exclusively.
“We are desperately seeking space,” Farley said. “Even motels that used to accept people are turning us away. People can no longer afford to be as generous as they once were.”
Gini King, outgoing director of the WCFFA, said a fall gathering would be planned with food pantry operators, Rotary and other civic organizations, churches and municipal leaders to look at homeless placement.
“Preventing homelessness is much more cost-effective than getting someone re-established that is living on the street,” Kelling said.