Finding the homeless on Portland's streets

PORTLAND – At the far end of the city’s industrial waterfront, over a 7-foot-tall snowbank, across the railroad tracks and behind a patch of trees and frozen brush, Susie Whittington and Sandy Brown saw footprints heading along the riverbank.

"Hello!" Whittington called out as she trudged through knee-deep snow. "Homeless outreach. Anyone out here?"

About a dozen social service workers spent several chilly hours Wednesday night walking the city’s streets and parks and exploring its hidden nooks and crannies, looking for any homeless men or women who had not checked in at a shelter.

It was time for the annual count of Portland’s homeless, and they didn’t want to miss anyone.

"It’s very important," said Rob Parritt, assistant director of the Oxford Street Shelter and a leader of the city’s Point-in-Time Survey. "The better data we can get, the better services we can provide."

Most of the city’s homeless are surveyed when they check in at emergency shelters. The hardest part each year is counting the much smaller number of people who shun the crowds at the shelters and prefer isolation, even in the dead of a Maine winter.

"We usually find at least a few people," said Parritt.

Whittington, who works with the program for homeless veterans at the Togus VA Medical Center, and Brown, a counselor at the Oxford Street Shelter, followed the trail of footsteps along the Fore River.

The path was easy to see in the bright lights of the South Portland waterfront. But the footprints eventually circled back away from the river, and no one was camped out there Wednesday.

After checks of a few other potential campsites, it was on to the next spot.

Later, Parritt’s survey crew found a few homeless people warming up at Starbucks in the Old Port. They bought them coffee and asked them questions, taking what little information the men would give.

The crews also use such opportunities to encourage people to go indoors, although no one is forced to go to a shelter.

The Point-in-Time Survey is done in cities across the country during the last week of January. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development requires the data, to help it allocate federal housing subsidies.

"If you can’t show a need to HUD, you don’t get the funding," Parritt said.

Portland officials will compile the results of the survey and submit them to HUD next month.

The city receives about $3.2 million a year in HUD Continuum of Care funding, some of it indirectly through the Maine State Housing Authority, said Social Services Director Douglas Gardner. Most of that money pays for housing subsidies to help move people out of shelters into transitional housing or apartments.

Portland’s homeless population has been around 300 at the time of the last several annual surveys. The count increased last year to 325, and some expect another increase this year.

"The numbers are definitely up a little," Parritt said.

The Oxford Street Shelter for men, which holds 150, has been close to full this winter and has been taking in women who can’t fit into the women’s shelter, Florence House. That makes Parritt nervous about summer, when the city’s homeless population typically grows, he said.

The recession would probably have overwhelmed the city’s shelters if not for an intensive, federally funded effort to find homes for people who are sleeping in shelters or on the verge of becoming homeless, said Gardner.

"The number of people who are . . . experiencing homelessness for the first time is definitely increasing." But, "there’s been a really kind of unprecedented allocation of resources to make housing accessible."

Gardner said more than 400 people were placed in housing and kept out of shelters because of those efforts in the past year. That funding is scheduled to run out next fall, he said.

The Point-in-Time Survey helps the city and other agencies focus their resources.

Along with the name and age of every homeless person, the survey counts military veterans and asks about the reasons for homelessness, such as alcohol and drug abuse, disabilities and unemployment. This year, the survey also is asking people if they went through recent mortgage foreclosures.

The numbers may provide a snapshot of need for lawmakers in Augusta and Washington, D.C., who happen to be weighing budget cuts in housing and welfare programs.

Portland officials fear the economic and political environment could lead to deep cuts in funding for the shelters or for General Assistance, a municipal welfare program that helps provide housing and basic needs to the poorest families.

"I have a feeling it’s not going to be pleasant for social services," Parritt said as he trudged through the snow Wednesday. "We need to show the strong need."

Parritt said he planned to keep looking for people until midnight Wednesday. At one point early in evening, he seemed to narrowly miss some people at a remote campsite near the Casco Bay Bridge, where there were mattresses, trash and some fresh footprints.

"We’ll have to come back here later," he said.

Staff Writer John Richardson can be contacted at 791-6324 or at