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Megan D. Hannan is the executive director of the Maine Community Action Partnership and Greg Payne is the director of the Maine Affordable Housing Coalition.
The COVID-19 pandemic wreaked havoc on our local economy and left so many people struggling. However, during this year of struggle many Maine organizations and communities have worked together to provide safe shelter and hotel accommodations to people who didn’t have a place to live. The pandemic also brought to light the issue of homelessness as a public health issue, which we hope will result in more consistent support and funding for shelters and Maine’s homeless response system over time.
At a time when we knew staying home saves lives, Maine organizations and communities banded together to provide safe shelter and hotel accommodations to people who didn’t have a place to go. For over a year now, MaineHousing, municipalities, shelter service providers, hotels, and state agencies have worked diligently to ensure that people got off the streets and out of crowded shelters into hotel rooms.
However, when federal reimbursement funding runs out on September 30, 2021, we must have a place for those in hotels to live.
We can’t go back to the way things used to be. Every Mainer deserves a safe, stable place to call home. Homeless shelters need to be places where people go in a crisis, not where people go to live.
With that belief in mind, MaineHousing, the Statewide Homeless Council, and service providers have been working on efforts since February to ensure that people leaving hotels have a place to live by the end of September. Using new and existing state and federal resources, partners across the state are again getting creative about how we make this work.
Maine can now use Emergency Rental Assistance Program funds to help house people who are homeless, including paying for security deposits and three months of rent in advance. And service providers at hotels are partnering with public housing authorities across Maine that received Emergency Housing Vouchers from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). There are 180 total vouchers in the state, according to MaineHousing.
And yet: we are facing a housing shortage that makes it hard for people to find housing, even if we have the funds to make it happen.
That is where you can help. Spread the word: A new program will soon offer financial incentives and grant funding for landlords who agree to work with individuals or families with rental assistance vouchers. Private landlords have long been the key to maintaining affordable housing in Maine and across the U.S. – and that is more true now than ever before. Landlords should contact their local housing authority (or MaineHousing for those cities and towns that do not have a local housing authority) for more information.
We especially need help finding housing for people in rural areas. As the recent homeless system redesign report noted, programs have historically been focused on our high population density geographies — Portland, Bangor and Lewiston — often leaving our highly vulnerable rural areas and shelter providers with little support for people and families experiencing homelessness. We hope to take the successes we have had in the collaborative systems we’ve built in the last year, and make sure resources are available across the entire state so that homelessness is rare, brief and one time.
Every homeless family, child, veteran and adult with disability deserves the same opportunities to reach their full potential in safe and secure housing. As we move from crisis reactions to community building, not everything needs to go back to “normal.” Now is our state’s time to reject the normality of homelessness and work toward what we know is possible. We have a unique opportunity to work together to make sure every Maine person has their own place to rest and — as we’ve come to say — stay safe.