Task force focuses on plight of homeless

PORTLAND – More than 50 people turned out Thursday night for a public hearing on homelessness as a city task force works toward a strategic plan that reflects “the heart of the community.”

The hearing in the Portland Public Library’s Rines Auditorium was the first held by the city’s Task Force on Homelessness, which was formed by the City Council in December to create a strategic plan to prevent and end homelessness that mirrors a federal plan.

Former City Councilor Dory Waxman, Maine Red Claws President and General Manager Jon Jennings and United Way President and CEO Suzanne McCormick are leading the 20-member task force.

The group intends to collect and analyze data this summer in four subcommittees, focusing on emergency shelters, access to primary and behavioral health services, affordable housing, and the distinct needs of homeless youths, families and veterans.

Although the group originally was supposed to finish its work in June, it will not have a plan ready until this fall.

Waxman said the task force has met four times since January, primarily focusing on educating itself about the issues that contribute to homelessness.

Waxman said the group wants to create a plan that incorporates successful strategies being used in other communities and includes an analysis of the costs.

"When we’re done, (the plan) is going to reflect the heart of this community," Waxman said.

The city operates two of the six emergency shelters in Portland: the Oxford Street Shelter and the Family Shelter.

The number of homeless people in Portland has increased 20 percent since the recession started in 2008. An average of 350 people in Portland are homeless on any given night, said Doug Gardner, the city’s director of health and human services.

Gardner said the city’s shelters have been over capacity for about a year and have been relying on overflow space at the Preble Street Resource Center. Occasionally, even Preble Street fills up and people have to stay in the General Assistance office, he said.

Several audience members said the city is known as a welcoming and compassionate place, and surrounding communities that lack strong social service programs are taking advantage of that reputation.

Rather than concentrate social services in Portland, services need to be dispersed into other communities, said one resident, Jay York.

"Portland is a very welcoming city, and because of this we have a bigger problem than we should have," York said. "We have done enough. It has affected our quality of life."

Waxman said the group is working with Westbrook and South Portland. People suggested the group expand that partnership to more communities, including Biddeford.

Some people suggested more volunteers to mentor chronically homeless people — those who are most visible on the streets.

Resident George Crockett said the city should address the underlying causes of homelessness. "Homelessness isn’t the problem, it’s the result," he said.

Some people laid blame on Gov. Paul LePage’s administration, which has reduced General Assistance and Medicaid funding to municipalities. Others said the city should look for things to do for itself, rather than wait for an outside solution.

For Pastor Mair Honan, a street minister who provides spiritual support to the homeless, the solution to homelessness starts with a personal transformation — one that relies less on images and statistics and more on personal compassion.

"When you sit and talk to (homeless people) you know they’re your brothers and sisters," Honan said. "I carry their stories with me and their stories are so profound — they’re heartbreaking."

Staff Writer Randy Billings can be contacted at 791-6346 or at:

Twitter: @randybillings