Task force airs new strategy for helping Portland's homeless

PORTLAND – A task force has unveiled a sweeping plan for reducing homelessness in the city.

The plan, still in its draft form, calls for creating a centralized process for assessing homeless people; building three, 35-unit housing facilities, and expanding case management services to better match the needs of clients.

Nearly 100 people filled City Hall’s State of Maine Room Oct. 3 to hear the first public recommendations of the Homeless Prevention Task Force, which was appointed by the City Council last year.

The 18-member task force includes business leaders, city officials and community members. It is led by former Councilor Dory Waxman, Maine Red Claws President Jon Jennings and United Way of Greater Portland President and Chief Executive Officer Suzanne McCormick.

"Our current capacity is as strained as it’s ever been," McCormick said, noting that city shelters have been overfilled since June 2011. An average of 444 people seek housing in a shelter each night, according to the most recent data from the city.

Implementing the plan’s recommendations is "both ambitious and expensive," the task force admitted in a report on its findings. But the city also would achieve savings by reducing the need for shelter stays, emergency room visits, jail stays, mental health hospitalizations and other functions.

The task force estimates those potential savings at more than $2.2 million annually.

People attending the meeting had plenty to say about the plan. Several voiced frustration that Portland is spending money to care for homeless people who move to the city to take advantage of its public services.

"Should Portland be treating outsiders?" said Doug Fuss, president of Portland’s Downtown District.

Statistics are unclear about how much of the local homeless population has recently moved to the city from elsewhere. But speakers at the meeting referred to percentages as high as 50 percent.

A Congress Street business owner said homeless people should meet strict eligibility requirements before they can receive shelter or services.

"And why should someone move to Portland if they can’t afford to live here, anyway?" he added.

Another downtown business owner complained that her customers have felt threatened by homeless people who blocked the entrance to her store. "There’s something wrong when we’re giving to people who don’t give back," she said.

But many speakers applauded the work of the task force and supported the expansion of homeless services without regard to residency.

"Everyone deserves help," said Jim Devine, an advocate with Homeless Voices for Justice.

The task force recommendations are expected to be presented to the council Oct. 15.

William Hall can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 106 or Follow him on Twitter: @hallwilliam4.