DAVID FARMER

Focus on good works, not political vendetta

Posted Dec. 28, 2011, at 5:28 p.m.

Earlier this month, Maine received national attention for our efforts to fight homelessness, especially among children.

When Forbes magazine released its latest ranking of states that are best for doing business, it was guaranteed to make news in Maine.

Despite questionable criteria, it’s going to make headlines when a national magazine ranks you dead last, which is exactly what happened for the second year in a row.

The story gained even more steam when Gov. Paul LePage mischaracterized the reasons why Maine fared poorly, bending the rationale to fit his current political needs and his efforts to destroy the state’s antipoverty programs.

Other rankings, especially ones where the state does well, don’t always get the same treatment.

On Dec. 13, USA Today published an important story about the growing plague of childhood homelessness.

The facts are disturbing. Citing a December study released by The National Center on Family Homelessness, 1.6 million kids — roughly one in 45 — are homeless. Given the Great Recession it shouldn’t be a surprise, but the number represents a 33 percent increase since 2007.

The wealthiest country in the history of the world can’t manage to make sure its children have a safe place to sleep at night.

While the problem weighs on the conscience, the story also included this: “The states where homeless children fare the best are Vermont, Minnesota, Nebraska, North Dakota and Maine.” The list was based on an extensive report of state efforts to combat homelessness, childhood health, rates of uninsured and state policy and planning.

The efforts of each state are broken down, and Maine scores high on all but one.

On extent of homelessness: 3. On the risk of homelessness: 3. On child well-being: 32.

On state policy and planning: 1. Maine ranks first in the country.

Much of the work to fight homelessness in Maine rests with MaineHousing, which deserves credit for research, planning and innovation.

For example, because of the state’s attention to planning, when Recovery Act dollars became available, they were put to immediate use for homeless prevention and rapid rehousing, serving about 2,600 families during the time funding was available. Of those, more than 70 percent included children, with an average age of just 9 years old.

Additionally, MaineHousing has done groundbreaking research on rural poverty and created a successful program to offset the shortage of Section 8 housing vouchers, which are the most cost-effective way to provide affordable housing to families on the verge of homelessness.

MaineHousing has been in the news a lot recently, with both Gov. LePage and State Treasurer Bruce Poliquin taking aim at the agency’s director, Dale McCormick.

McCormick is a Democrat, and a holdover from the Baldacci administration in which I also served. She’s ruffled plenty of feathers, both among rival politicians and among some in the affordable housing community.

But she’s also done good work.

McCormick isn’t the only person involved with state policy and planning to fight homelessness. Efforts are far-reaching and have involved the Legislature, the Department of Health and Human Services, the Statewide Homeless Council, the cities of Bangor and Portland and dozens of other individuals, communities and shelters.

But she’s a big part of the effort.

She’s outspoken and strong willed. And based on her life experience and the challenges she’s overcome, she is impossible to bully.

She was the first woman in the country to finish a carpentry apprenticeship with the carpenter’s union. She’s helped develop a groundbreaking program to move women on welfare into the trades. And she was one of the founders and first president of the Maine Lesbian/Gay Political Alliance, now called EqualityMaine. She’s been the director of the housing authority since 2005.

Befitting a carpenter and an early pioneer in the fight for equal rights, McCormick is tough as nails. She’s not perfect, but she has done a lot of good things at MaineHousing and beyond.

Poliquin and LePage want her gone. And they’ve spent a lot of time — and hot air — on the task.

Instead of spending so much effort on McCormick, they could spend a little more on child well-being where we ranked 32nd. To improve, we need to pay more attention to early childhood education, maintain our emphasis on food security and invest in programs that work to stem poverty.

Unfortunately, many of the cuts proposed by the governor, such as those to Head Start, are likely to move us farther down that list.

David Farmer is a political and media consultant. He was formerly deputy chief of staff and communications director for Gov. John E. Baldacci and a longtime journalist. His clients include Maine Equal Justice Partners and EngageMaine. You can reach him at dfarmer14@hotmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @dfarmer14.

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