FREEPORT, Maine — Behind Freeport’s image as an affluent coastal town, an increasing number of residents are turning to community social services for help with basic needs.
And as the gulf between rich and poor grows, fewer people who work in town are able to afford living there.
Freeport Community Services, which also serves Pownal, has been around since the 1980s and has seen the need for its services grow substantially in recent years, said family services coordinator Sue Mack.
“We’ve seen an incredible spike,” Mack said last week at her office on Depot Street. “It’s a lot more middle-class people that never thought they’d be in this situation.”
Although Freeport’s median household income according to 2010 Census data is more than $65,000 a year, a significant section of the population is aging, on fixed income or working in the town’s low-paying retail and warehousing jobs.
“We have a lot of working poor,” said FCS Executive Director Bob Lyman, noting that the neighborhood where FCS operates is a designated poverty center. “One out of every four kids in this area qualifies for the free lunch [program at school].”
In particular, FCS has seen a spike in the use of its food pantry and heating assistance programs, Mack said, with more than 200 families a month served — about a 20 percent increase from 2009.
State heating fuel assistance, known as the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program, has increased more than 50 percent since last year, with a particular need this season due to the harsh winter.
But the aid isn’t what it used to be, with the price of fuel shooting up dramatically in recent years.
“LIHEAP only fills about half a tank now,” Mack said. “That lasts some of the elders, what, two, three weeks?”
To help raise awareness, and hopefully cash, FCS is hosting its annual 24-hour “Freeze out” food and fuel drive this weekend from 10 a.m. Saturday to 10 a.m. Sunday, at the First Parish Church, 40 Main St.
Yarmouth, Bath and Brunswick are joining Freeport and also hosting drives where, in addition to monetary donations, they will also be accepting non-perishable food.
Last year the drive raised $16,500 for heating assistance, Mack said.
Although it’s encouraging to raise money to help people stay warm in the winter, Mack said, that money is only a temporary fix.
“I don’t like raising money to see it go out people’s chimneys,” she said of the heating assistance funds. “People call me and it would break your heart. You’ve got these older people in their homes and their incomes aren’t going up, but their property taxes are, and they can’t afford to heat.”
But, sustaining people through the winter is all they can do right now, she said, because the real problem is systemic.
“We can’t pretend to fix everybody’s problems,” said Mack, who has worked at FCS for eight years. “We’re more about helping people identify problems. Some things we can try to fix, but we can’t fix poverty.”
FCS has expanded in the past few years to more buildings, allowing it to offer a free meals program, enlarge a second-hand clothing store, and provide office and meeting space for other community organizations.
It has also started a program where prisoners from the Cumberland County Jail in Portland do maintenance on the building, Lyman said.
Besides food and fuel, housing is becoming problem.
In the last decade, the town has added a few affordable housing projects as part of its comprehensive plan to diversify housing.
But housing prices remain relatively high, with a median home value of $266,000, compared to the state’s median price of $168,000, according to a demographic and economic analysis report commissioned by the Freeport Economic Development Corp. last year.
Last month, the Town Council passed an ordinance change that encourages the growth of affordable homes, in addition to approving another Habitat for Humanity development, aimed at helping lower-income people become homeowners.
Despite some efforts to create more affordable houses, and with home prices easing since the recession, financing is still difficult to obtain. The inability of people to get financing for homes increases the market for rentals, which is limited in Freeport, accounting for only 21 percent of all housing, according to the FEDC study.
Even with new housing projects, Freeport is still a relatively wealthy coastal town, which leads to continued gentrification, according to Jim Hatch, executive director of Freeport Housing Trust.
In the 1980s, Hatch said, many lower-income former mill workers were forced out of housing to make way for the emerging retail outlet area’s parking lots. Today, the town is known as one of the premier destinations in the state, and evidence of its factory and mill tradition is almost non-existent.
And although need for social services organizations like FCS have been increasing, mostly because of the recession, Hatch said Freeport is not becoming more economically diverse.
“Huge numbers left to Lisbon Falls and Lewiston” when the outlets were built, he said. “I wouldn’t characterize Freeport now as having more low-income people, in fact, it’s the opposite. Freeport, really over the last three decades, has gone through considerable gentrification.”
The majority of people who work in Freeport live in another city or town, many from the larger urban areas of Portland and Lewiston.
According to Census data, more than 4,600 people who work in Freeport come from out of town, with a majority commuting between 10 and 24 miles. About 1,100 live a minimum of 25 miles away from town, and 526 of those workers travel more than 50 miles to work.
Only 720 people live and work in town; about 2,400 Freeport residents leave town for work.
“You’ve got all these professional people, like attorneys, driving down from Freeport to work in Portland, and you’ve got the lower-income people driving up the pike to work at Bean’s in Freeport,” Hatch said. “And they’re crossing each other on the way to work everyday.”
Almost half of the workers in Freeport have retail and warehousing jobs that pay between $10 and $15 an hour, or about $25,000 a year, with L.L. Bean accounting for much of that workforce.
The average hourly wage for the top 25 jobs in terms of employment size in Freeport is $13.77, according to the FEDC data.
Keith McBride, FEDC executive director, said economic development plans in Freeport point to higher wages, noting there is hope to attract a light industrial manufacturing facility in the next decade.
“The town’s Comprehensive Plan sets a very high economic goal for diversifying the economy,” McBride said, adding that an economic blueprint for the town, called “Vision 2025,” will be unveiled in late March or April. “A diverse workforce makes the Freeport economy stronger.”
According to current trends, by 2015, a Freeport resident’s median income is expected to increase by more than 17 percent from 2010 levels, to $75,000 a year, according to the FEDC study.
Further, the largest income increase will be for those making $100,000-$150,000, with that group making up 30 percent of all households in Freeport. Conversely, the smallest income increase will come to those making $35,000-$50,000.
This data emphasizes a continued demographic shift in the town’s toward pushing out the poor and inviting the affluent, a common characteristic among Maine’s coastal communities that likely won’t change anytime soon, Hatch said.
“I just don’t see it in significant increases,” of affordable housing, he said. “From what Habitat has built, you can count it on one hand. Maybe with the new development you can count them on two. It’s good stuff, I’m glad it’s happening, but the overall trend in Freeport is continued gentrification.”