Click here for the latest coronavirus news, which the BDN has made free for the public. You can support our critical reporting on the coronavirus by purchasing a digital subscription or donating directly to the newsroom.
As many lodging businesses look to reopen June 1, around the time when the state’s busy tourist season typically begins, it might be more difficult for homeless Mainers who have been taking refuge at area motels during the pandemic to find other housing.
In early April, Gov. Janet Mills barred hotels, Airbnb rentals and other lodging establishments from accepting new customers or reservations in order to slow the spread of COVID-19 in Maine. She made exceptions, however, for essential workers and other at-risk segments of Maine’s population, including domestic violence victims and homeless people, to seek shelter at these places.
On Thursday, Mills said lodging businesses could start accepting reservations for as early as June 1 from Mainers and out-of-state residents who have quarantined here for two weeks. While there is broad support for allowing businesses to cautiously reopen in order to boost the sagging economy, some advocates for Maine’s homeless population say it could limit the availability of rooms for people who otherwise lack housing.
“We have been tapping into a lot more hotel rooms than we normally do,” Stephanie Primm, executive director of Knox County Homeless Coalition, said. “I believe that [the reopening of hotels to tourists] will impact our ability to address increasing housing needs.”
Some homeless shelters have cut back on their number of available beds to try to inhibit the spread of the new coronavirus, and testing needs to be more broadly available for most of those shelters to store their pre-COVID capacities, Primm said. The economic fallout from mandating non-essential businesses to close, and from the phased re-opening of many businesses throughout the summer, is expected to make even more people lose their long-term housing, she said.
In the past month or so, the number of requests for housing assistance her organization has received has roughly doubled to three or four a week, Primm said. Requests for food assistance have gone up 150 percent, she added.
“With the economy and loss of jobs, I think we’re going to see a significant increase in need,” she said.
Bangor is “trying to wrap our arms” around the question of whether its homeless population is on the rise, Patty Hamilton, director of public health for the city, said Friday. Homeless shelters in the city have been able to put residents who have tested positive for COVID in area hotels while the businesses have been barred from accepting other guests, she said.
There is a concern in Bangor and throughout Maine that the floundering economy could cause demand for social services to soar, but there’s a simultaneous concern that Maine’s annual summer tourist season could tank because of the quarantine requirement for people from out-of-state, Hamilton said. If Maine gets few tourists this summer, there likely still would be hotel rooms available to people who ask homeless advocacy organizations for help, she said.
“I think we’ll have less [tourist] demand on our hotels” this summer, Hamilton said, “but it’s an unpredictable time we’re living in.”
Watch: Who can make reservations at Maine hotels next month?