PRESQUE ISLE — With homelessness already at an all-time high in Aroostook County, those serving the unsheltered population are just trying to help people survive — a mission made more difficult by the arctic blast hitting Maine this week.
Homelessness and a lack of affordable housing have been longtime problems in Aroostook County, but in the colder months, more people are seeking shelter wherever it can be found.
The increased mental health issues and the lack of affordable housing in one of Maine’s most rural cities is driving homelessness up in Aroostook County as those who help the unsheltered population scrabble for resources. There are multiple factors contributing to the problem but the main one is the housing market, according to an Aroostook County Action Program spokesperson.
Rising costs of utilities force landlords to increase rent prices to cover their overhead, and the housing market favors landlords in that they only need to wait for a tenant who can afford the rent, leaving out those with lower or no incomes, ACAP Director of Programming Heidi Rackliffe said.
Other issues include the COVID-19 pandemic and the cold winters, she said.
Resources such as Homeless Services of Aroostook and The Aroostook County Action Program collaborate to serve people who are homeless with the Sister Mary O’Donnell Emergency Homeless Shelter and Aroostook Bridges program. With the onset of subzero temperatures, both groups have been working nonstop to make sure those who do not have stable housing can get through the winter.
But there is only so much that can be done without further options.
“I believe that we need an increase in affordable housing and mental health services,” Homeless Services of Aroostook General Manager Lisa McLaughlin said. “We need the public to better understand that homelessness can happen to anyone.”
The shelter has been at capacity multiple times this year, especially when factoring in COVID-19 guidelines that limit the number of people who can occupy a space. When the shelter has reached its limit, staff normally direct people to the community action program.
At ACAP, staff can provide additional housing through local hotels for a short period until space becomes available at the shelter, and the two organizations work together to move the person back in.
ACAP has 60 people in hotels across The County.
Local law enforcement follows that protocol as well, Presque Isle Police Chief Laurie Kelly said. Police check with the shelter first if they encounter a person who needs housing. If the shelter is full, they refer candidates to ACAP to find more resources.
From September through December in 2020, Homeless Services of Aroostook saw 41 people enter the emergency shelter, while 67 were served in the Aroostook Bridge Program. During the same period in 2021, there were 25 entries at the shelter and 59 for the bridge program. The shelter cannot use its maximum beds due to COVID-19 guidelines, to ensure the safety of all residents, which accounts for the lower numbers recorded there.
Most of the people at the shelter come from Aroostook County, with very few hailing from other areas of the state. But for any resolution to the problem, people who are homeless need access to more services, McLaughlin said.