Despite cold and ‘conventional wisdom,’ shelter numbers lower in winter than summer

Posted Dec. 21, 2012, at 11:47 a.m.

PORTLAND, Maine — More homeless people seek shelter in Portland during the summer months than the winter, a trend that some city business leaders say defies logic.

In its response to a recent report issued by a city task force on homelessness, the Portland Community Chamber argued that those numbers are evidence that the city is a “magnet” for homeless people and that homeless people are motivated to come to Portland for shelter for reasons other than need.

Service providers say there are easy explanations for seasonal homeless shelter demand that many people may overlook.

“Conventional wisdom would presume that when the temperature goes down, the shelters fill up,” the Chamber document reads, in part. “But the opposite is true. Portland’s shelters are busier in the spring-summer than in the fall-winter. Last July there were 61 percent more shelter bed nights [332] than there were in January [205]. This statistic suggests the magnitude of the transient problem … and suggests that we are indeed a summer destination for more than cruise ships.”

But Mark Swann, executive director of homeless and hungry service organization Preble Street, said the Chamber’s analysis of the situation is oversimplified.

“There have been people who have been quite struck in looking at our numbers and how they increase at shelters in the summer,” he said. “That was pointed out as an indicator that we are a magnet, that people are coming here. If anybody had asked us, we would have explained that homeless numbers go up all over the country in the summer. It was described as conventional wisdom that shelter numbers are busier in the winter. Well, it’s wrong. It might be ‘conventional wisdom,’ but it’s wrong.”

Swann said community charity increases in the winter as people are more aware of homelessness, and churches, family members and other organizations are more willing to open their doors to help during Maine’s coldest season.

Also, families on the financial brink will fight to stay in their homes at least until the end of a given school year, he said, and rent in summer tourism hot spots plummets to rates that people on the edge can afford during the off season in Maine. So, for instance, people who can make the rent in an Old Orchard Beach unit in December are priced out of the room in July, he said.

Dennis Marble, executive director of the Bangor Area Homeless Shelter, said his facility has been at its 43-person nightly capacity since about 2009, rendering seasonal demand changes difficult to track. But he said before the recession hit, the Bangor shelter saw trends similar to those seen in Portland.

“We used to be busiest in the summer,” Marble said. “Now we’re full year-round, and have been for about three years. But July and August were our busiest months.”

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