Portland's homeless front: More people than ever seek shelter

PORTLAND – More than 400 people on average sought overnight shelter in the city last month – the highest number since the city began keeping records in 1987.

Last year, the city started using the Preble Street Resource Center as an emergency overflow location for an additional 75 people. But now the numbers are overwhelming that location, forcing the city to open up its General Assistance office on Lancaster Street, where people are sleeping in chairs.

The GA office, which can hold 50 people, was used as overnight shelter for eight to 12 people nearly every day last week. About 22 people used it Monday, and seven people were there as of 10 p.m. Tuesday.

"I’m disturbed by the trend," Mayor Michael Brennan said. "It’s just unacceptable to have people sitting up in chairs in an office all night because we have no place for them to sleep."

Officials attribute the rise mostly to the loss of the city’s Homelessness Prevention, Rapid Re-Housing Program, which ran out of federal funding last November.

The two-year program, funded by $876,000 from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, paid for seven full-time employees and provided rental assistance and support services.

The spike in homelessness is also affecting the Preble Street soup kitchen and food pantry. Last year, they reached a milestone by serving 1,000 meals on one day in April. This past April, the kitchen served an average of 1,000 meals a day, according to Donna Yellen, a social worker and director of advocacy for the Maine Hunger Initiative at Preble Street Resource Center.

This month the kitchen is serving an average of 1,200 meals a day, said Yellen.

"We know numbers increase during the summer," Yellen said. "But this summer is very unusual and one we’re worried about."

The shelter numbers jumped this summer, too. Before June, an average of 357 people sought shelter in Portland.

In June, an average of 411 people sought overnight shelter – an increase of 57 people over June 2011. It’s the first time the average has exceeded 400 people in the 25 years of recording keeping.

"It’s certainly a troubling statistic," said Doug Gardner, director of the city’s Health and Human Services department "It’s not a milestone we’re particularly pleased with."

Portland has had a policy of not turning away anyone seeking shelter since 1987, when then-City Manager Bob Ganley instituted the rule after a homeless encampment sprang up at City Hall to protest the closure of a shelter.

A recent staff analysis found that only one-third of Portland’s homeless are from Portland, while one-third are from out of state and one-third are from other Maine towns.

"Portland has always been a hospitable and compassionate city, and I think we want to continue to move in that direction," Brennan said. "Regardless of where people come from, we want to do the best we can to find housing, job opportunities and allow people to live in Portland as a fully participating member of the community."

The city currently operates two shelters – the Oxford Street Shelter and the Family Shelter – while nonprofit groups, like Preble Street Resource Center, operate several others that focus on women, youths and those with substance abuse problems.

The city-run Oxford Street Shelter has 129 beds but can accommodate an additional 25 people on mats. When that shelter is full, the overflow location opens at the Preble Street Resource Center for up to 75 men, who sleep on mats.

On Tuesday, scores of people were milling around a fenced-in courtyard on Oxford Street, waiting for the shelter to open.

A 42-year-old woman named Laura said she arrives at 4 p.m., even though the shelter doesn’t open until 6 p.m., to make sure she gets a bed. "I make sure I get checked in early," said Laura, who has been staying a the shelter for the last eight months.

"It’s so overcrowded now," said 34-year-old Joseph Borowy, who has stayed at the shelter on and off for 13 years in between jobs and apartments.

Tim Frary, a 44-year-old man from New York who came to Portland on a job transfer in October, also comes to the shelter early. When Frary began telling a reporter his secrets to getting in the shelter early, 41-year-old Angel Velez warned him to stop because it would become even harder to get a bed.

"This place fills up in 15 minutes," Velez said.

Becky McLucas, who has lived on the streets of Portland 15 years, said she has never seen so many people seeking shelter. "This is at its worst," the 44-year-old said. "It has doubled in size."

The city-run Family Shelter at 54-56 Chestnut St. offers 84 beds in an apartment-style setup to families with children under the age of 18. Last week there was such a demand there that the city put up seven families in hotels, Gardner said.

The increase in homelessness is not limited to a specific group, Gardner said. Single moms, adult men and teenagers are all affected.

In addition to losing the federal funding, Gardner said the recent spike is also the result of the poor economy and the fact that families will hang on to housing until the end of school and then move into the city to seek better opportunities.

The city’s Homelessness Prevention, Rapid Re-Housing Program stably housed 1,306 people over the last two years, according to a report form the University of New England. It helped 72 individuals who had previously spent more than 500 nights at a shelter. Each received an average monthly benefit of $3,880 for an average of eight months.

It also provided assistance to 360 households, consisting of 997 individuals. Each household received an average of $1,831 in rental support and $460 in utility support over a two-month period on average.

For those who were previously homeless, the program freed up 75,730 bed nights at area shelters by providing about $600 a month in rental assistance security deposits for an average of four months, bridging the waiting period for long-term housing vouchers.

The program ran out of funding in November. But Gardner said the city is working with other area shelters to duplicate the case management and support services that were effective under the HPRP.

"The recidivism of less than 5 percent for folks coming out of the shelter was just amazing and it speaks to the power of good social work and case management and making sure folks are evaluated on a case-by-case basis," he said.

In the short term, however, the city is looking for space to open another overflow shelter. Gardner said the city is considering six locations but declined to name them.

Yellen said homelessness is increasing across the country, posing a major challenge.

"It’s the kind of thing that has to be a community response," she said. "We’re all in this together."


Staff Writer Randy Billings can be contacted at 791-6346, or on Twitter: @randybillings.