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This week, there was alarming news that deaths among those experiencing homelessness in Portland reached a record high in 2020. Last week, BDN readers were met with an eye-opening headline that a new shelter in Lewiston filled to capacity in the first two days it was open. This fall, Bangor saw a “tremendous uptick” in the number of our neighbors who are unhoused.
It has become a sad yearly recurrence that, as winter invariably blows back into Maine, it is accompanied by stories about the challenges facing homeless Mainers and those providing services to them during the coldest months of the year. Clearly, the challenges have intensified during the COVID-19 pandemic.
According to the nonprofit Preble Street, at least 64 people have died in Portland this year while experiencing homelessness. That’s a 60 percent increase compared with totals from each of the past five years. The city has seen the number of people who are unhoused approach a record high during the pandemic. It’s staggering.
In Bangor earlier this fall, officials counted roughly 140 unsheltered people living around the city. That was compared with 25 percent to 30 people at a similar time last year. The city’s estimated number of people living outside was down to 30 this week, according to Bangor community services manager Rindy Fogler. So at a minimum, 30 members of our community are currently without shelter heading into another cold Maine winter.
With the surge in the number of unhoused Mainers this year, there has been an even greater need for additional shelter space. This is compounded by several factors including a lack of available and affordable housing, clients staying longer than usual in shelters because they increasingly have nowhere else to go, and the pandemic-induced necessity to spread people out at shelters and ensure proper physical distancing.
One way that MaineHousing, the state’s housing authority, has worked to address this is by contracting with hotels in Portland, Bangor and Lewiston and having them serve as overflow shelters.
“We all know in terms of COVID, it’s going to get worse, and the entire community has a stake in keeping everyone well,” Shawn Yardley, CEO of Community Concepts, told the BDN. Community Concepts is the nonprofit being contracted by MaineHousing to operate the hotel shelter in Lewiston, which filled up within just two days when it opened in November.
The 60 shelter rooms at the Ramada Inn on Odlin Road in Bangor and the 28 beds at the Lewiston Ramada are “generally at capacity,” according to MaineHousing. That means the demand is so high that these operations basically have no vacancies for people seeking shelter.
“Right now, there’s no room at the inn. Literally,” Fogler said.
Given the demand, there should be little doubt heading into January that the hotel shelters are playing an important role helping to keep Mainers out of the cold during the pandemic, and should be continued through the winter. But it’s also important to remember that these leases are a temporary solution to a longstanding problem that transcends winter and transcends the pandemic. This issue isn’t going to melt away with spring, or be inoculated by a vaccine.
Josh D’Alessio, the director of Hope House, which is operating the shelter at the Ramada in Bangor, emphasized the importance of investing in affordable housing. We couldn’t agree more.
The price tag to run the hotel shelters, which also include separate rooms in each of the three cities that are available for people quartininging because of COVID-19, is not cheap. MaineHousing is in the process of adding another hotel shelter in Portland (the current location has 149 shelter rooms), and projects that total monthly costs in 2021 for all the hotel shelters could approach $1 million, with the Federal Emergency Management Agency continuing to cover 75 percent of the costs during the current public health emergency.
A recent nationwide waiver from FEMA means MaineHousing won’t have to file for a time extension on this federal support every 30 days. It’s a relatively small process change, but hopefully it helps provide some additional continuity and certainty that these shelters will continue to operate through the winter and allow more Maine people ride out these difficult months with a roof over their head.
As D’Alessio emphasized to the BDN, homelessness isn’t an unsolvable problem. Necessary steps like adding more affordable housing don’t happen overnight, but with a concerted effort to understand the underlying causes, trust in proven strategies, and a willingness to marshall resources, there is a path forward.
It will take smart, compassionate policymaking and a refocusing of how the general public understands homelessness and the people who experience it. The headlines are troubling and the challenges are daunting, but they are not insurmountable.