Federal, local statistics on homelessness vary, but still point to urgent need in Maine

Josh O'Brien, director of Portland's Oxford Street Shelter, counts matts on the floor at the facility Wednesday Dec. 12, 2012 during his daily walk through.
Josh O'Brien, director of Portland's Oxford Street Shelter, counts matts on the floor at the facility Wednesday Dec. 12, 2012 during his daily walk through. Buy Photo
Posted Nov. 28, 2013, at 6:22 p.m.
Last modified Nov. 28, 2013, at 9:06 p.m.
The Bangor Area Homeless Shelter on Main Street
Bridget Brown
The Bangor Area Homeless Shelter on Main Street

BANGOR, Maine — Agencies combating homelessness in Maine say the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s homeless counts for Maine are probably inflated, but that doesn’t mean the state doesn’t have a serious problem to tackle.

On Nov. 21, HUD released its 2013 Annual Homeless Assessment Report to Congress. Some news was good — a 24 percent nationwide drop in homelessness among veterans and a 16 percent reduction among individuals experiencing long-term homelessness since 2010. HUD’s data for Maine were less encouraging — indicating a 26 percent spike in overall homelessness since 2012.

Statistics collected and compiled by Maine agencies during the past year indicate a much smaller increase than what HUD described, according to Deborah Turcotte, spokeswoman for Maine State Housing Authority.

“So far this year, we’re seeing so far an increase of 7 percent in the number of people who are homeless,” Turcotte said in an email Friday. “HUD’s figures that were released earlier this week do not mesh with our numbers, and we’d like to review the data. We’ll be meeting with HUD representatives next week to go over the figures.”

MaineHousing expects to see a 5 percent increase in the number of people served by shelters, but an 11 percent increase in bed nights, or number of occupied beds, once it firms up data from the past year. That’s a trend many Maine shelters are seeing — they are serving a relatively small number of new people, but those people are staying for longer and coming back more often.

Regardless of the true numbers, the problem is disturbing, officials say.

In Portland, the overflow shelters have overflow shelters, according to Doug Gardner, director of the city’s Department of Health and Human Services. When the city’s Oxford Street Shelter fills up at about 140 people, the shelter opens up other places to meet any excess need. There were more than 100 extra on Friday night, he said. Collectively, Portland has about 450 to 500 people sleeping in shelters each night, according to Mark Swan, director of Preble Street shelter.

In 2012, MaineHousing put the number of bed nights — or the number of shelter beds occupied during the course of the year — at more than 326,000. Those beds were used by 7,769 individuals. The previous year, there were just over 301,000 bed nights, but roughly the same number of unique clients. That means that even though there were roughly the same number of people in shelters, they were staying for longer and returning more often. Shelters said they expect to see a similar story once 2013 statistics are ironed out.

Gardner said that while the average stay at Portland’s family shelter was about 20 days last year, this year, it’s closer to 35 days.

The Bangor Area Homeless Shelter saw a decline in the past year of the number of people it served, but the number of beds taken per night during the course of the year increased, as it has steadily for years, according to Dennis Marble, the shelter’s director.

Officials say they know how to fix the problem: Get people out of the shelter and into their own housing. Quickly. The question is how to get that done as often as possible.

Maine has a shortage of adequate housing and housing support for people trying to transition out of homelessness, shelter officials said.

MaineHousing has a waiting list of more than 8,000 individuals and families waiting for Section 8 vouchers, and those are only in parts of the state not served by local housing authorities, according to Turcotte. In all, the number of people awaiting vouchers is closer to 11,000. This year, MaineHousing expects to issue about 3,750 vouchers, but because of sequestration, that number is 150 fewer than expected, Turcotte said.

Portland is struggling to find residential space for its homeless population and needs more developments to push those efforts forward. Swan cited the example of Logan Place, an apartment complex Preble Street opened in 2005 that houses people who have been chronically homeless in the past. Logan Place has room for about 30 people.

The night it opened, homelessness in Portland plummeted by 10 percent and stayed down for four years, Swan said. Now, it has climbed back up, a fact Swan attributes to the economic crisis of 2008, which forced some people into homelessness and led to cuts in services needed to keep people stable in housing. He says he wishes Portland had five more facilities like Logan Place.

“It’s not just one agency that does it. You need to have the support of the whole community,” Swan said.

In Bangor, Bangor Housing Development Corp., a wing of Bangor Housing Authority, is planning a pair of projects that are a step in the right direction toward bringing much-needed housing, according to to Marble. Investments like that are needed in cities across the state, he said.

On Monday, Bangor Housing will begin tearing down six run-down First Street apartments to make way for 24 new townhouse-style units. Bangor Housing also is preparing to build more apartment units in the downtown building that once housed Freese’s Department Store.

For Marble, another key piece to reducing the growing homelessness trend is universal health care.

“If I can’t get into a medication management program, if I can’t see a shrink, if I can’t get into an anger management counseling program, I’m not going to stay stable in housing,” he said.

While the numbers are up for debate between Maine and HUD, the seriousness of the issue of homelessness is not, officials said.

“I think we need to create a greater sense of urgency about this tragedy,” Swan said.

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