After years of increases, is Portland’s homeless population leveling off — or even shrinking?

Josh O'Brien, director of Portland's Oxford Street Shelter, counts matts on the floor at the facility during his daily walk through in this December 2012 file photo.
Josh O'Brien, director of Portland's Oxford Street Shelter, counts matts on the floor at the facility during his daily walk through in this December 2012 file photo. Buy Photo
Posted Feb. 01, 2014, at 6:27 a.m.
Last modified Feb. 01, 2014, at 9:23 a.m.

PORTLAND, Maine — A top Portland official said Friday he’s optimistic a census of the city’s homeless people will show signs of a dropoff after years of sometimes explosive growth.

Douglas Gardner — director of the city’s Department of Health and Human Services, which oversees Portland’s shelter operations and other homeless services — said that despite the improvements, however, there are still more shelter seekers in the city than beds available for them.

“We are still in a place where we have overflow shelters open every night and have folks sitting in chairs overnight, so we’re not in a place where we’ve resolved the problem,” he said.

Official results of Wednesday night’s annual point-in-time survey, during which communities across Maine do a snapshot Census-style count of how many people are living without permanent housing, won’t be available for a number of months, Gardner said.

The point-in-time figures are compiled from participating municipalities by the state, then forwarded to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and reported to Congress, where the latest homeless trends can affect public opinion and policy.

Overnight shelter numbers, reported by the shelters themselves, will make up the vast majority of Maine’s and Portland’s homeless population in the final point-in-time survey results.

But Gardner said the 20 volunteers fanning out through Portland on Wednesday found only four individuals considered “unsheltered,” living outside or in makeshift camps instead of any of the city’s overnight shelters.

That’s a significant decrease from the 10 unsheltered individuals discovered in the 2013 point-in-time survey.

Gardner said that change can be misleading without seeing the corresponding shelter numbers. That 60 percent fewer people were found outdoors may not mean that there are fewer homeless people, but rather that more of the homeless people are taking advantage of the shelters. And Gardner said the bitter temperatures the city has seen in recent weeks make it likely that’s what is happening.

“I think that really is an indication of how cold for multiple days it had been leading into the count,” he said. “We go out and we do outreach, make sure that they know we’re here, and really encourage them — to the degree that we’re able — to come into the shelter.”

Including the numbers from the emergency shelters, last year’s point-in-time survey found that 470 individuals were homeless in Portland. That was a big jump from the January 2012 study, which counted 390, or the 2011 figure of 340.

The 2010 survey counted 325 homeless people in Portland, a number which at the time was hailed as a troubling increase over 2009’s count of 276.

When the 2014 numbers are released, Gardner said he’s optimistic they’ll show that the trend of a growing homeless population in Portland has been reversed, or at least that it’s plateaued.

Gardner said the slow rebound of the economy, paired with new initiatives implemented by his department over the past year, give him cause for optimism.

The city over that time began requiring shelter users to agree to meet with counselors and develop personally tailored plans to pursue permanent housing.

“It’s based on a clinical assessment. It’s not one-size-fits-all,” Gardner said. “We’re not kicking people out; we’re saying that we expect that you will be working toward a housing plan, and that’s going to look very different for you versus me, based on the struggles we’re both dealing with.

“I think we have had success,” he continued. “We placed well over 600 people into permanent housing during the calendar year of 2013.”

During his State of the City address last week, Portland Mayor Michael Brennan put the figure at 659 — a 45 percent increase compared to the previous year, when those personal plans were not required of shelter users. Brennan also said city programs helped 309 people find jobs in 2013.

Increases in those numbers may be indications that decreases in homeless numbers are coming, Gardner said.

“I truly believe we’ll see a slight reduction in family homelessness,” he said Friday. “Because there are other shelters [than just the city’s Oxford Street Shelter] involved in counting the individual homelessness, I can’t be as confident about those numbers. But I don’t believe we’ll see a big increase there.”

Earlier in the week, the city and Maine State Housing Authority issued a joint news release to clarify that the oft-cited federal HUD homeless report — built using point-in-time survey results and delivered annually to Congress in the fall — included people living in transitional housing among the state’s homeless.

Because MaineHousing and its local partners have made a concerted effort to increase access to transitional housing — for people who are close to being able to return to permanent housing — those numbers have risen, and by extension inflated the federal homeless numbers.

In Portland, 332 people in the 2013 survey were living in transitional housing, compared to the previous year’s total of 229. Statewide, of the additional 623 people the federal government counted as homeless in 2013, 478 were living in transitional housing.

If the transitional housing is removed from the equation, the state’s homeless population in 2013 grew by 11 percent compared to 2012, not the 26 percent HUD reported to Congress.

 

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