Can Maine end homelessness?

There are important steps communities and the state and federal government can take to help prevent Mainers from having to live in cars, parks, abandoned buildings, on sidewalks and in emergency shelters. They include developing enough supportive housing, providing clear access to available services, following up with people over time and expanding prevention efforts.

Homelessness has many complicating factors, but its roots are in poverty. As people across Maine continue to search for better ways to prevent and end homelessness, let’s frame the conversation that way: Homelessness is a result, not a condition.

The problem does not appear to be getting better. The number of unique homeless people in Maine has been increasing, from 6,952 in 2007 to 7,725 in 2011, and the number of nights people are spending in shelters has increased as well, according to Maine State Housing Authority data.

Anecdotal accounts claim more people with disabilities are ending up at Maine shelters; 46 percent of homeless people in a January annual point-in-time survey said they had a chronic disability.

But there also is evidence of what helps people achieve stability. In many cases it involves moving people as quickly as possible out of a shelter and into supportive housing. Research shows the longer people stay in a shelter, the harder it is for them to ultimately get housing, find work and take the necessary steps toward becoming more self-sufficient.

Getting people into supportive housing has been shown not only to improve a person’s quality of life but to save money in the long-term, through reduced shelter, emergency room, prison and ambulance service costs, according to a study sponsored in part by the Maine Department of Health and Human Services and other research completed across the country. For those who are able, the goal is to ultimately move people out of supportive housing and into a place of their own.

As the state continues its work to end homelessness, it should direct resources toward developing housing that is paired with appropriate services, such as drug and alcohol treatment.

Since the early 1990s, nonprofits, social service agencies and the Maine State Housing Authority have developed supportive housing for homeless populations. According to the most recent report from 2007, a total of about 840 units of permanent and transitional supportive housing were serving people who were previously homeless. Some projects targeted youth, the chronically homeless, victims of domestic violence and people with mental illness and addictions.

But the number of housing units is not enough to meet demand. Maine needs at least 600 more units, according to information submitted to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Having enough housing, however, will only be effective if people are given access to resources to help them overcome the reasons why they became homeless in the first place.

The state can do more to develop career centers with targeted programs for the homeless. It can invest in community-based levels of vocational training. It can do a better job speeding up and streamlining available assistance, so people don’t have to repeat their story over and over. And it should follow through with people after they leave their homeless situation. There is very little data about people’s destinations when they depart a shelter, indicating a lack of follow-up case management – though it’s important to note that participants also need to take part fully for follow-up to work.

Prevention is key, and more can be done to protect people at risk of foreclosure or eviction. For those who do not meet the federal definition of homeless, there is homeless prevention assistance for those who instead meet the definition of " at risk of homelessness."

But it’s questionable whether the legal provisions allow enough time to catch individuals and families before they fall. Currently to qualify they must have income below 30 percent of median income for the geographic area and have insufficient resources immediately available to attain housing stability. It would be worth examining the overall benefit of allowing more people to qualify for certain relief to ensure they don’t become homeless.

Homelessness is a problem that affects everyone whether they see or experience it directly or not. But there are ways to help people get and keep stable housing. It’s a matter of political will, goodwill and making the systemic changes.