BANGOR, Maine — Rising homeless populations, uncertain budgets and a sharp decrease in community contributions have officials at Maine shelters pondering how to improve the situation and lessen demand for their services.
There’s “a big warning bell going off this year,” Dennis Marble, director of the Bangor Area Homeless Shelter, said Friday.
Last year, the shelter, which relies heavily on private contributions, drew about $120,000 from its annual appeal to donors large and small. This year’s effort has come up about $17,000 short of last year’s total, according to Marble, who said he’s concerned about “donor fatigue” after five years of difficult economic climates and looming budget changes that could mean tax hikes for donors.
Marble said he hopes other fundraising efforts this year, such as the April 13 Hike for the Homeless, will help make up for the shortfall of the annual appeal. The hike’s goal is $40,000.
The director said he’s worried that declining donations could be the beginning of a trend and that little additional aid will be found at the federal or state level.
The private, 24-hour shelter on Main Street has 38 permanent beds and adds five more in winter months. Its operating budget continues to grow, while state and federal subsidies have stayed relatively flat, according to Marble.
When he arrived at the shelter in 1996, half of the shelter’s revenue came from state and federal homeless funding distributed by Maine State Housing Authority, meaning the shelter relied much less on donations, drawing just $12,000 in 1996.
Last year, federal and state sources accounted for just 20 percent of the Bangor shelter’s budget, Marble said. The costs of operating the facility have doubled to about $500,000 since 1996 in an effort to provide shelter, meals, permanent housing placement and other services for a homeless population that continues to grow.
Portland’s Oxford Street Shelter, a city-run overnight facility with a normal capacity of 154, is experiencing its own drastically expanding budget in reaction to burgeoning demand for its shelter and services, according to Douglas Gardner, Department of Health and Human Services director for the city.
Gardner said the Portland shelter is seeing 250-260 people per night, which has forced the city to open up other spaces to house the 100 extras each night. The overcrowding has been on the rise since the economic downturn five years ago, he said.
“We’re opening overflow shelters every night now,” Gardner said.
The city also operates a separate emergency shelter for families. Those facilities — with operating budgets of $670,000 for the family shelter and $2.5 million for the Oxford Street Shelter — are seeing dramatic increases in costs as a result of having to open and staff these overflow shelters, Gardner said.
The shelters are seeing more clients in every category — adolescents, single men and women, families, veterans and the disabled.
Portland’s city shelters rely less on donors than the private Bangor Area Homeless Shelter, drawing most of their funding from MaineHousing, general assistance and some federal Community Development Block Grant programs, according to Gardner.
“The funding is always tenuous and is always a challenge to piece together,” Gardner said.
With federal and state budgets being slashed, shelters aren’t likely to see more funding from those sources. The number of homeless individuals and families seeking aid isn’t showing signs of a decline, officials said.
Gardner and Marble said the likely solution is effective housing programs that quickly place qualified homeless individuals into permanent residences so they can get their feet under them.
“We know that works,” Gardner said.
Gardner cited the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Homelessness Prevention and Rapid Re-Housing Program, which placed more than 300 homeless individuals in housing from 2010-11. In 2012, Bangor’s homeless shelter placed 111 individuals.
Marble said that shelters aren’t “building [their] capacity to fix things,” but rather to meet a demand that’s being caused by bigger issues that create homelessness.
“I’m not thrilled about having to spend all this money to maintain an emergency arrangement,” he said, adding that he doesn’t want his shelter to get any bigger or any more costly.
In 2008, MaineHousing drafted “A Plan to End and Prevent Homelessness,” with the goal of putting as many people as possible in permanent housing and providing an adequate support network. That plan was amended in 2011 and is still being implemented.
Substantive change will need to result from collaboration among mental health services, general assistance programs, the Department of Health and Human Services, and MaineHousing and shelters, according to Marble.
“We’re threatening to institutionalize these shelters,” Marble said.