Maine's Homeless Take Up Call for Housing Assistance

On any given night in Maine, about 800 homeless people are lucky enough to get into shelters. But advocates say shelters have been beyond capacity for months. That means an unknown number of others are literally living on the streets. Today a few of them took up microphones at a Lewiston news conference to urge Congress to provide more money for rental assistance. But within hours, the U.S. House had voted on a spending bill that does not include the money they’d been hoping for.

They call themselves Homeless Voices for Justice, and they are homeless and formerly homeless people who know what it’s like to need help.

“January 25th – I can remember it. A Friday night – I went into the women’s shelter where I was going to stay for a year,” says Marsha Frank, who describes herself as a licensed x-ray technician in her late 50s who became a victim of the nation’s recession.

Franks says she lost her job in 2007, couldn’t find another one and wound up being evicted from her Portland apartment in 2008. “And the worst part of going homeless was I had to give up my 12-year-old dog and that was Patches. Oh, that was horrible. Having my stuff, leaving it and being reduced to one bag of stuff – that didn’t bother me. But losing him? Oh, I cried for days. I still miss him and it’s almost two years ago.”

A Navy veteran, Franks has since qualified for a rental voucher through the Veterans’ Administration. She says she gets a check worth about $900 a month and has been able to move out of the Preble Street Women’s Shelter in Portland and into a nice apartment where she now has a cat.

She’s become an advocate for the homeless and says she wants them to have what she now has. About 15,000 Mainers are currently on a waiting list to receive low income housing vouchers under the program known as Section 8. “We have no vouchers, no Section 8 vouchers and that’s what we need,” Franks says. “I mean they’ve got 70 women at the shelter. Like I said the capacity’s 40. They’re sleeping in offices, storerooms. I mean this is ridiculous.”

Amy Regan, a community organizer with Preble Street, says the men’s shelter in Portland is also overcrowded. It has a capacity of about 125, but Regan says more than 150 men are showing up every night. Because Portland has a commitment to providing shelter no matter what, Regan says that means some men are forced to sleep in chairs.

“And if, say, a man gets up at four o’clock in the morning to go to work and that bed opens up then they’ll turn that bed over but until that happens men are sleeping sitting up, and they’re safe and they’re warm, but they’re still sleeping sitting up.”

Homelessness is not confined to Portland. Vicki Collins has been living at the Bread of Life shelter in Augusta for several months after she lost her job and her unemployment ran out. An ongoing battle with depression has not made her situation easier. She says she has been able to hang onto her car, but she says the churches that have been providing gas cards to keep it running have been tapped out.

And for Collins, this is a problem, since the shelter closes between 9 and 4 everyday. “I usually go to the Hannaford parking lot, hang out there, read — there’s a bathroom available. Doctor’s office — I go sit at that parking lot. It’s getting pretty rough.”

At the news conference, Homeless Voices for Justice called on Maine’s congressional delegation, Governor Baldacci and President Obama to provide more housing vouchers. Richard Chaucer is an advocate from Brunswick. “We need change! We voted for change a year ago! Where’s the change in homelessness? Where’s the change in vouchers? Where’s the change in our heating bills? Where’s the change in our electricity costs? We do not deserve to be homeless.”

Linda Couch of the National Low Income Housing Coalition in Washington D.C. says the change in the latest ombnibus spending bill passed by the House includes funding for the Department of Housing and Urban Development and homeless assistance. Couch says it even includes some funding for Section 8, but not enough to meet existing needs.

“I think advocates were really hoping that Congress would acknowledge rising family homelessness; acknowledge that the recession is taking its toll on families; and we’re going to gear up to fight again to fight in next year’s appropriations bill,” Couch says.

One suggestion offered at the Lewiston news conference: Use unspent money from the Troubled Asset Relief Program known as TARP to fund vouchers, and it appears to have been heard in Washington.

“I currently think we should use the TARP money to increase jobs- I mean that’s the number one issue in Maine,” says 1st District Congresswoman Chellie Pingree. “But there is a very good argument around housing and I am very anxious to see more housing money come into the state.”

Others are anxious too. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Maine has what are described as 37,000 extremely low renter households in Maine, those considered to be at risk of homelessness.