EDITORIALS

Homeless in Maine: Why not everyone needs help, why some need much more

Program Manager Rowena Griffin walks through shelving that contains bags of belongings that some of Bangor's homeless have been allowed to leave at the shelter in September.
Program Manager Rowena Griffin walks through shelving that contains bags of belongings that some of Bangor's homeless have been allowed to leave at the shelter in September. Buy Photo
Posted Oct. 21, 2013, at 1:28 p.m.

The backstories of each homeless person are different, but they all center on some type, or many types, of devastation, BDN staffers learned recently during an overnight stay at the Bangor Area Homeless Shelter. People can’t find housing they can afford, and their situations are often complicated by domestic violence, substance abuse, disabilities or mental health issues.

But challenges are surmountable, and homelessness, like many major social problems, is preventable. It requires public policy that addresses the real problems, such as lack of support for the chronically homeless, and the application of adequate resources. Those who live in poverty aren’t likely to have the ear of politicians. Yet politicians have significant power to help.

Mental health providers and social services leaders should help lawmakers define long-term priorities for ending homelessness, and Maine should stick to them. The work must be framed in terms of community investment. Having people in a home, off drugs and out of abusive relationships is good for communities, not just the individuals directly involved.

One of the first priorities for lawmakers and experts should be to find a way to get the chronically homeless out of shelters.

The chronically homeless are harder to serve, but they desperately need housing and services. Otherwise, there’s a domino effect, said Cullen Ryan, executive director of Community Housing of Maine. People who spend many months in a shelter take the space from those who only need a shelter bed for a few nights. Then, those who would move through a shelter quickly remain homeless longer. The longer they are homeless, the harder it is for them to become independent.

Four out of every seven people who stayed at Maine’s largest shelter — Oxford Street Shelter in Portland — in fiscal year 2013 were essentially just passing through. About 55 percent of the 2,166 shelter residents, or 1,185, stayed no longer than 14 nights, with one-third staying a maximum three nights. This population does not need much help and, in fact, might not benefit from continued assistance, Ryan said. The statistical breakdown has remained the same for the last 16 years.

Resources are more helpful for, and better spent on, the medium-length population that stays between 14 and 179 days. This group particularly benefits from rapid rehousing — where they receive housing before being required to participate in mental health counseling or addiction treatment. They generally need more than a few months to resolve the issues underlying their homelessness, find employment and start paying their bills. “Housing first” programs have proven more successful at returning people to permanent housing than either transitional housing or shelters — and often at less cost, too.

It’s the next subset — the 5 percent of residents who stay longer than 180 days per year — who have so far presented the greatest challenge. Shelter workers around the country have often chosen to work with residents who are easier to engage with, leaving this population in shelters too long.

There aren’t many deemed chronically homeless: just 116 at the Oxford Street Shelter and about 262 statewide. Yet the resources they’re using at shelters could be stretched further and with more benefit in supportive housing. They also sleep in beds that others need. The people who remain at the shelter longest take up the vast majority of Oxford Street Shelter’s 130 available bed spaces each night.

The truth is that it costs money to house this population, whether in scattered site public housing; small or large multifamily supportive housing; or through the rapid rehousing model that often uses large, single-purpose buildings. But the cost of a rental subsidy and case manager is far less than what it costs to keep someone in a shelter long-term. And of course getting them into a home improves their productivity and quality of life.

The 262 residents across the state who remain in shelters more than 180 days per year often struggle with a dual diagnosis or some level of psychosis. The longer they’re homeless, the harder it is to heal; the stress of homelessness often brings on psychotic episodes. Once they have a stable home, and services to help them stay there, their chance of recovery is much greater.

Can Maine’s 23 cities find housing and federal funding for 262 residents? Divided evenly, that’s only about 11 people per city. It’s doable. Who will get it done, and when?

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