Portland panel urges regional solution to homelessness

PORTLAND – The mayor and city manager must work with surrounding communities to solve the city’s homelessness problem, a leader of the city’s Task Force on Homelessness said Monday.

The City Council received a brief presentation about the task force’s report during a workshop session Monday at City Hall. A public hearing and council action is scheduled for Nov. 5.

One of the report’s recommendations is to establish three 35-unit housing complexes, providing in-house services for residents struggling with certain issues, such as mental illness or substance abuse.

The city has two "Housing First" complexes for the chronically homeless — the Florence House for women and Logan Place for adults. The shelters seek to establish stable housing that allows residents to deal with other issues contributing to their homelessness.

According to statistics from intake questionnaires taken when homeless people arrive at a shelter, about one-third of those seeking shelter in the city are from Portland. Another third are from other Maine towns that don’t have shelters, and the rest are from out of state.

Councilor Edward Suslovic asked whether the Housing First units need to be built in Portland rather than Biddeford, Lewiston, Brunswick, Augusta or other communities.

"The solution for Portland just can’t be Portland-based," said United Way President and Chief Executive Officer Suzanne McCormick, who helped lead the task force. "It’s a regional issue and we need a regional solution."

Mayor Michael Brennan and City Manager Mark Rees "have some work to do," with surrounding communities on a regional plan to address homelessness, McCormick said.

The task force also examined whether residency requirements would help ease the burden on Portland, but studies show this does not reduce the number of people seeking shelter or services in the city, McCormick said.

Restricting services does not end homelessness, but making services more widely available where homeless people are does, McCormick said.

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 was erected at City Hall to protest the closing of a shelter.

Currently, the city and Preble Street have separate intake procedures at shelters, McCormick said, and only clients that fit a certain profile are eligible for case management services.

The report recommends centralizing the intake process for a variety of services at shelters, and expanding case management services to fit clients’ needs, rather than to what is likely to be reimbursable with federal and state funds.

"The current case management structure is really quite restrictive," she said. "They’re often tied to specific eligibility criteria. We’re advocating for a case management system that is more general and accessible to anyone who is homeless."

The task force has not given a cost estimate for implementing its recommendations. But it says the current system costs more than $6.7 million per year. A new streamlined system could save $2.2 million in emergency care costs, the report says.

No public comment was taken during the 20-minute presentation.

Brennan said he will ask the council to refer the report to at least two council subcommittees — Public Safety, Health and Human and Services, and Housing and Community Development — which will be charged with making recommendations to the full council.

McCormick recommended the city establish a "legacy committee" to ensure the report is implemented, while Councilor John Anton said the council’s Legislative Committee should also be brought into the fold.

Brennan assured the task force that the city would not let its work go unacknowledged.

"One assurance I can give you is we won’t let this go," he said.

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