CAMDEN, Maine — In the largely rural and bucolic midcoast, the face of homelessness looks much different than it does in the state’s urban areas.
People struggling to find housing typically are not seen sleeping on sidewalks or on park benches — instead they’re tucked away, sleeping in cars or tents, or on a temporary couch, spread out across the nooks and crannies.
But the Knox County Homeless Coalition wants to bring the issue of rural homelessness out into the open this weekend with its second annual sleep out, where participants ditch the comforts of their home to sleep on the Camden Village Green and get a slice of what it’s like to be housing insecure.
“Our deepest hope is that through this annual experiential event we deepen understanding for all. We want to enlighten our communities about the realities of homelessness. We hope people leave the overnight experience with a bit more empathy and understanding,” said Stephanie Primm, executive director of the Knox County Homeless Coalition.
The event, One Night Without a Home, coincides with Homelessness Awareness Month, according to Knox County Homeless Coalition Development Director Becca Gildred. To participate, individuals must raise $100. The proceeds will benefit the nonprofit coalition, which helps individuals and families struggling with homelessness in Knox and Waldo counties, and parts of Lincoln County.
Last year, 6,454 people spent some period of time in Maine’s homeless shelters, according to the Maine State Housing Authority.
The Knox County Homeless Coalition currently has a caseload of about 350 clients that staff works with to provide case management, which addresses needs from housing to health care; emergency services such as temporary shelter, food and clothing; as well as youth programming.
About 53 percent of the coalition’s client households include children, according to the Knox County Homeless Coalition 2018 annual report.
The No. 1 reason that people seek help from the Knox County Homeless Coalition is lack of safe and affordable housing. In the midcoast, Gildred said this lack of access to affordable housing is further compounded by a rise in housing costs and vacation rentals that shrink the housing markets.
Currently, based on apartment listings, only one apartment is available in Rockland for less than $1,000 per month. Affordability in the city is becoming such a concern that every candidate who ran in this week’s City Council race made it a part of their platform.
To find housing they can afford, people often travel farther into rural areas. But if they lack reliable transportation, they can become isolated from jobs, health care and other services, Gildred said.
“All of the things that we think about as needs become exponentially more difficult in a rural setting. Not impossible, but they require creative solutions,” Gildred said.
The coalition’s shelter, Hospitality House, only has capacity for 22. It is the only emergency shelter in the Waldo-Knox county region.
With limited emergency space, Gildred said the coalition focuses on a “holistic” preventative approach to combating homelessness. The group works with community partners, including Habitat for Humanity and the Maine State Housing Authority, to find long-term affordable housing for clients.
But once that housing is found, the coalition continues to work with individuals and families to make sure they don’t find themselves in the same position again, by providing services such as employment, transportation and health care support.
“What we deal with here in the midcoast is a hidden population of homelessness, and it doesn’t fit the mold that Hollywood portrays,” Gildred said. “We have more people with families who are homeless. We have couch surfers. We have people living in their cars.”
The coalition’s sleep out is being held to help the community understand this reality.
“We hope they leave in the morning having been unable to sleep because they were cold, a little hungry and a bit wet and uncomfortable — perhaps realizing what it might be like if they now had to pack up their wet cold sleeping bag and go to work — no shower, no power, no hot coffee and heading to work in the wrinkled damp clothes they slept in,” Primm said.
Last year, about 30 people participated in the sleep out. Some slept in tents, some in their cars, some with just a tarp over them. Not everyone made it through the night, and Gildred said there is no shame in that.
The National Weather Service forecasts it will dip to 24 degrees on the evening of the event, which was marred by blustery winds and rain last year.
“It is what it is. We will not reschedule because of inclement weather,” Gildred said. “Homeless does not go away due to inclement weather. It raises the awareness to another level.”