In talks on panhandling limits, don’t forget what’s important

Large portraits of Portland's homeless are displayed on a wall behind customers discussing business over morning coffee at the Public Market House on Nov. 22.
Robert F. Bukaty
Large portraits of Portland's homeless are displayed on a wall behind customers discussing business over morning coffee at the Public Market House on Nov. 22.
Posted Sept. 03, 2013, at 12:46 p.m.

Portland Mayor Michael Brennan and community service providers gathered at Portland City Hall for a news conference Aug. 15 to highlight the city’s anti-homelessness agenda and tout some successes in the fight against homelessness in Maine’s largest city.

Since January, for example, the city’s Oxford Street Shelter has matched every person who checks in with a case manager who works with that person to develop a plan to find permanent housing. About 300 single adults and 62 families have secured stable housing this year with the help of case manager attention, according to the city. That’s a 30 percent increase over last year’s figures at this time.

The Portland Housing Authority said it recently set aside 40 federally subsidized housing vouchers for “chronically homeless” people. The additional housing units those vouchers could make available allow those who work with the homeless to pursue a “housing first” policy that makes finding housing the priority before treating addiction or mental illness. With a stable home first, the thinking goes, people will be more willing and in a better position to pursue treatment or start searching for work.

Those who spoke at the news conference also pointed to outreach teams that travel to homeless camp sites to let the people there know about services available to help them. They said efforts are underway to lobby Portland’s neighbors to take similar steps, recognizing homelessness isn’t confined to Portland’s city limits.

The press conference was publicity to positive effect.

It happened the same day a new, controversial ordinance took effect in Portland that bans panhandling on median strips. During the debate over the new ordinance, opponents criticized the rule change as an attempt to remove poverty from public view. Other opponents urged the city to invest more in affordable housing, domestic violence shelters and substance abuse treatment.

So city officials and advocates for the homeless steered the discussion in that direction. Rather than allow the ordinance to work as a measure to remove poverty and homelessness from public view, the discussion became one about how Portland can address the deep poverty that exists in the city.

Immediately after councilors signed off on the anti-panhandling ordinance, councilors also approved a policy change that will set aside $400,000 annually out of the city’s $2 million annual federal block grant for projects that directly put homeless people to work and keep them employed.

Many of the positive steps Brennan and others touted at the Aug. 15 news conference were in keeping with the city’s strategic plan for ending and preventing homelessness.

While the city touts progress in the fight against homelessness, it’s clear there’s much left to do in Portland and across the state.

Maine’s latest Point in Time survey of homelessness conducted by the Maine State Housing Authority reported 1,175 people were homeless as of Jan. 30, 2013. That number has continued to rise in recent years. In 2009, the survey found 871 homeless Maine residents. Meanwhile, homelessness has been on the decline at the national level: The National Alliance to End Homelessness estimates a 17 percent drop between 2005 and 2012.

Seventy-three percent of those found to be homeless had been homeless between seven days and six months. Some 13 percent were black, compared with 1.3 percent of the state’s entire population.

The most recent residence for 32 percent of Maine’s homeless — the largest portion — was in Cumberland County. Twelve percent last lived in Penobscot County, seven percent in York County and four percent in Androscoggin County.

Panhandling has been a major topic of conversation this year in Maine cities. In June, Bangor councilors outlawed “unreasonable, aggressive solicitation,” and councilors in Lewiston are starting to weigh whether that city should adopt ordinances outlawing aggressive panhandling and panhandling in traffic.

As the conversations on panhandling in Maine cities continue, everyone will benefit if those conversations expand beyond panhandling and place just as much — if not more — importance on efforts to prevent the need for panhandling altogether.

http://bangordailynews.com/2013/09/03/opinion/in-talks-on-panhandling-limits-dont-forget-whats-important/ printed on July 26, 2014