PORTLAND, Maine — Mayor Michael Brennan and representatives from multiple community organizations Thursday touted a multifaceted strategy to reduce homelessness in the city, saying the plan already has helped trigger a dramatic increase in the number of homeless people placed in stable housing.
The mayor’s news conference on the steps of City Hall came on the day when a controversial ordinance preventing panhandlers — or any other pedestrians — from standing in the city’s median strips took effect. Despite the fact that the rule change does not reference panhandling specifically, homeless advocates in recent months noted that panhandlers are by far the ones most likely to be standing in the median strips, and accused the city of not doing enough to solve the root causes of homelessness before banning them from the high-traffic spots.
In Lewiston this week, police are urging city officials to consider new ordinances that would prohibit so-called “aggressive panhandling” as well as begging for money from drivers in traffic.
With Thursday morning’s event in Portland, city leaders aimed to pivot the discussion toward the positive, highlighting efforts being taken to reduce homelessness in Maine’s largest municipality and the results already logged on that front.
One initiative implemented in January requires every person who stays in the city’s Oxford Street Shelter to work with a case manager to develop a step-by-step plan to find permanent housing. That policy — which generates different rehousing timetables for different shelter clients, depending on their needs and abilities — has helped approximately 300 single adults and 62 families secure stable housing this year, according to figures released by city officials Thursday.
Those numbers represent a 30 percent increase compared to last year at this time, they said.
That trend comes on the heels of four years of growing numbers of homeless people in Portland, where from just 2011 to 2012, the number of people seeking nightly admission into homeless shelters exploded by more than 25 percent, reaching approximately 440 individuals every evening at one point.
As part of the multi-pronged reduction plan unveiled Thursday, the Portland Housing Authority announced that it has set aside 40 federally subsidized Section 8 low-income housing vouchers to be used by so-called “chronically homeless” individuals.
Jon Bradley, associate director of the Portland homelessness and hunger prevention group Preble Street, said the vouchers help expand the city’s successful “housing first” approach beyond its current site-specific limitations.
Currently, his organization partners with Avesta Housing to run two apartment buildings in the city built to accommodate the chronically homeless, providing permanent, private and low-barrier units for many mentally ill and substance addicted individuals who had in previous years spent their nights in shelters, hospital rooms or jail cells.
The “housing first” model allows people to move into the permanent units without first agreeing to treatment, a philosophy built on the belief that with stable housing in place, people will be more likely to accept help, take medications and seek employment.
While city officials have pledged $50,000 to help cover pre-development costs to contribute toward the construction of more such apartment buildings, Bradley said the vouchers in the short term can help pay to put at-risk individuals in apartments elsewhere in the city.
According to a study released in 2011 by Thomas McLaughlin, University of New England associate professor of social work, a group of nearly 100 Greater Portland homeless individuals with disabilities cost taxpayers a total of $622,386 less while living in stable housing than they did while living on the streets — with cost avoidance deriving primarily from more efficient use of medical care and fewer run-ins with law enforcement.
Thomas Ptacek of the advocacy group Homeless Voices for Justice told attendees at Thursday’s news conference he lived in Portland’s Oxford Street Shelter for more than a year.
“I was confused, overwhelmed and embarrassed,” said Ptacek, who now lives in an apartment with the help of housing subsidies earmarked for veterans. “I didn’t know how to ask for help or even what to ask for.
“A safe and affordable home is a critical step toward recovery,” he continued. “Imagine trying to maintain your mental and physical health without a home. Imagine trying to control a substance abuse problem without a home.”
Other steps included in the strategy announced Thursday are the expansion of outreach teams, which travel to known homeless camp sites six days each week to raise awareness of programs and services available for the homeless; work by the city staff to identify language in the land use ordinances that creates regulatory hurdles for new “housing first” facilities; plans to establish new temporary shelters for those needing specialized medical care or sober environments; and a push by city leaders to convince neighboring cities to implement similar strategies in an effort to spread the demand for emergency housing services across a greater area.
Others who spoke Thursday included United Way of Greater Portland head Suzanne McCormick and Portland Regional Chamber CEO Chris Hall.
“If someone is stuck at a shelter, we haven’t worked hard enough, thought creatively enough or become strong enough advocates for them,” said Preble Street Executive Director Mark Swann.