Helping homeless seen as boon to commerce

PORTLAND – Last Friday afternoon, Michelle Souliere found a homeless man passed out drunk on the doorstep of her bookstore on Congress Street, the Green Hand. Instead of calling 911, she called the city’s Homeless Outreach & Mobile Engagement Team.

A white van pulled up, and out jumped John Dana and Jesse Flynn, outreach workers for the "HOME Team," a public-private initiative that began on July 1.

They woke the man up and gave him water. After seeing that he was OK, they asked if they could take him somewhere out of the hot sun, such as the Oxford Street Shelter. The man said he wanted to go to Amistad, a nonprofit on State Street that helps people with mental illness. They took him there.

Souliere said the program helps the homeless and business owners who want Congress Street to be an attractive place for shoppers and families.

"It seems to have worked out for him," she said of the homeless man. "And it has worked out for me."

Modeled after a program in Burlington, Vt., the initiative is funded with a $100,000 community development block grant, a $35,500 contribution from the Portland Downtown District and in-kind services donated by Preble Street, the Milestone Foundation and Portland’s Health and Human Services Department.

The Milestone Foundation, which operates an emergency shelter and detoxification program on India Street, is the lead agency.

The project is a blend of two initiatives, said Doug Gardner, director of the Health and Human Services Department.

The city and other social service agencies wanted to fund a van to take homeless people to programs and shelters. Mercy Hospital wanted to address the high cost of emergency room services for the homeless.

At the same time, downtown business owners wanted outreach workers walking the streets and helping to handle intoxicated people who were yelling at people, urinating in public, fighting and panhandling aggressively.

Gardner said it’s cheaper and more effective for trained outreach workers to serve the needs of the homeless than it is for police and rescue personnel.

Tom Allan, executive director of the Milestone Foundation, said it makes sense that the agencies and businesses are involved in the effort.

"It’s an honest-to-goodness, authentic community response to a problem that belongs to all of us," he said.

There are two two-person outreach teams: a morning team that works from 7 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Monday through Friday, and an afternoon team that works from noon to 8 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday.

They patrol Congress Street from Lincoln Park to Longfellow Square, the Bayside neighborhood, and occasionally along the waterfront.

Dana, a licensed alcohol and drug counselor, said he has two types of clients: homeless people and business owners. helping homeless people get services, he said, he can help create a better environment for commerce without compromising his ethics.

Sometimes, though, he can’t please both kinds of clients.

For example, he has told business owners that there’s no law against being intoxicated in public, and that he can’t force a person to leave.

Flynn, who as a teenager was addicted to drugs and lived on the streets in Portland and Boston, said that homeless people often feel isolated.

"They get the feeling nobody notices, nobody cares," he said, "and we are out there showing them that we do."

Staff Writer Tom Bell can be contacted at 791-6369 or at: