Is Portland ‘too attractive’ to homeless people?

PORTLAND, Maine – The homeless population in Portland is swelling, with nearly 25 percent more people seeking shelter this fall than even the historically high numbers seen a year ago. That increase and the expectation by Portland Department of Health and Human Services leaders that the numbers will continue to climb well into 2013 are fueling fierce debate over a question posed by city business advocates: Is Portland too attractive to the homeless?

That was the question posed by the Portland Community Chamber of Commerce in an 11-page response to a recent report by a city task force on homelessness that recommended more accessible services and more housing options.

The question draws the ire of social workers and service providers, who counter that life in the shelters is anything but attractive – and that jumps in the city’s homeless population can be traced back to the recession, which drove up unemployment and forced budget cuts in programs aimed at helping people who are on the brink. Their counterparts in Lewiston and Bangor, Maine’s second and third largest cities, respectively, say they’re battling similar allegations of attractiveness and that they’re seeing their share of shelter seekers from Portland.

"It’s an emotionally charged issue," said Portland DHHS Director Doug Gardner. "It’s emotional for people seeking services, it’s emotional for people in the community and businesses, and it’s emotional for service providers."

The Chamber document offers anecdotes in which homeless people from other parts of the country describe migrating to Maine’s largest city because of its reputation as a place where "nobody hassles you" when in search of public assistance.

The business organization contrasts those stories with anecdotes from longtime tourists who say they’re taking their shopping and recreational dollars elsewhere because Portland has become – as one reported visitor called it – "a disgusting filthy mess."

The Chamber’s conclusion? As the number of homeless people visibly rises, the number of shoppers and visitors in Portland is bound to decline. And the organization wants the city to consider how it can take steps to be "less attractive" to the homeless, in direct opposition to task force recommendations to build 105 more supportive housing units for the chronically homeless.

"Is this expansion of capacity an invitation for an exacerbation of an already deplorable situation? Could be," said Chamber consultant Christopher O’Neil. "What steps might we take to avoid such a result?"

‘Why come to Portland for that?’
Mayor Michael Brennan, a vocal supporter of the task force recommendations, acknowledges that Portland attracts the homeless – but no more so than might be expected in a city that’s nearly twice as large as any other municipality in the state.

Portland has a population of more than 66,000, while Lewiston and Bangor rank second and third with populations of about 36,000 and 33,000 people, respectively. By some metrics, the Greater Portland area – which economists consider to include Cumberland, York and Sagadahoc counties – accounts for more than half of the Maine economy.

So there are more jobs, more opportunities, more health care specialists, more buildings and, yes, more homeless people, Brennan said.

"Historically, Portland has always attracted persons who are seeking shelter, economic opportunity or a number of other things. I think what has captured people’s attention more is obviously we have a larger number of people who are coming now – an unprecedented number of people," Brennan said. "I believe as I have always believed that that is driven by … economic activity, the fact that we’re the largest city in the state, we do have homeless shelters and we do have services. If you lose your house in Casco, Maine, there’s not a shelter [there] for you to turn to."

Portland in October averaged 434 people seeking shelter each night, which was up from the October 2011 figure of 371.

Between 190 and 240 people each night seek emergency overnight accommodations at the city’s Oxford Street shelter, which has a capacity of 154, according to Gardner. The overall number also includes those who stayed in designated shelters for families, teens and those in mental health or substance abuse programs in the city.

The adults who don’t fit at the Oxford Street shelter, which is designated for single adults, are given thin mats to sleep on at the floor of Preble Street’s community center or chairs in the lobby of the city’s general assistance office. Associating that life with the phrase "too attractive" rankles service providers.

Mark Swann is the executive director of Preble Street, an independent nonprofit organization in Portland that provides services for the homeless and hungry, and a recent finalist for the Congressional Medal of Honor Foundation’s prestigious Service Before Self Honors.

"They sleep on the floor, on a mat six inches away from somebody they don’t know, clutching their belongings," he said. "Being woken up in the morning, walking down the street to the soup kitchen for a meal with 350 other people. Waiting in line, hoping you can sign up to take a shower. Hoping you can use the phone because you want to make calls to landlords and potential employers, but there’s only one phone. It’s a really, really hard and challenging life. So to characterize it as ‘too attractive,’ I think, is really, really wrong."

Chamber officials say they agree with the notion that life on the streets of Portland is difficult, but not that it’s hard enough to deter what they say has been a steady influx of homeless people from outside the city limits. City data indicate that only about a third of the homeless individuals who stay in Portland shelters are from the city of Portland – about another third are from other Maine towns and the final third hail from out of state.

The most recent numbers indicate there’s approximately one homeless person for every 150 people in Portland. That compares with a ratio of one for every 234 people in New York City, and about one for every 246 people in Bangor, according to municipal officials and shelter providers in those municipalities.

"You might ask, ‘Who in their right mind would go out of their way to come to Portland for that?’ It’s a good question. [One] that we want answers to, because obviously they are," said Chamber consultant O’Neil.

During a recent City Council hearing on homelessness, former mayor and head of the Western Promenade Neighborhood Association Anne Pringle argued that Portland’s 1987 policy of taking in anyone and everyone who arrives seeking shelter should be given a critical review, telling councilors the now 25-year-old initiative has been "assumed but not debated."

Swann said he hears the complaint that two-thirds of the people staying in Portland shelters are from out of town, but counters that they often have ties to the city that aren’t reflected in statistics. They have family in the area they had hoped to stay with or wanted to be close to, or they grew up in the city, or they had a job offer on the table here.

Ultimately, he said, homeless people move from place to place for the same reasons people who aren’t homeless move. Swann rejects the notion that people "are coming here to be homeless."

While the Chamber’s document implores city record keepers and policymakers to differentiate between "the person who uses the shelter because she loses her Portland apartment" and "the Texan who traveled here with no place to stay," Swann said the latter example is literally laughable to service providers in places such as Texas.

"We talk to people who do similar kinds of work all over the country," Swann said. "I always ask, ‘Do you know about people coming to Maine? Do you hear about that in your community?’ The first reaction is always laughter. That’s the very first thing, because there’s a common-sense piece to this that I think more people need to reflect on, which is: If you really are homeless and you’re trying to move somewhere, would you move to Maine where it’s cold?"

Even within Maine, shelter providers in other service center communities say Portland is not alone in its efforts to grapple with increasing numbers of homeless.

Dennis Marble, executive director of the Bangor Area Homeless Shelter, said he hears similar allegations that Bangor is a magnet for the homeless. He said he sees people coming to his shelter from Portland – in many cases, because the larger city’s homeless facilities are quite the opposite of attractive.

"What we’ve found in terms of data and this shelter is that 55 percent come from … the Bangor region, another 21 percent come from somewhere else in Maine, and the other 24 percent are basically transient," Marble said. "We’re one of the places that gets people from Portland. Some people find [the Portland] shelter to be too big and scary."

Brother Irenee Richard of Lewiston’s St. Martin De Porres Residence echoed Marble’s comments.

"We’ve been full for as far back as I can remember," Richard said. "There used to be times when with 10 beds you’d have only seven beds or six beds [occupied] for a few days or even a few weeks, but now that’s fairly rare. And lately we’re getting people from Portland. I’m not sure if it’s because the shelters are full down there. It could be, or it could be something else."

Which comes first? Housing or sobriety?
The city’s homelessness task force made two major recommendations in addition to developing 105 new supportive units for the homeless. Those recommendations are to overhaul the emergency shelter system to create a centralized intake and assessment portal for the homeless, and expand case management services to better meet the needs of clients.

While the task force’s draft report did not include a price tag to implement those recommendations, the Chamber estimates it could cost around $6 million.

"The more we build housing units, the more we build structures that are intake centers, and set up triage systems, the more we spend," O’Neil said. "It’s spending. You can call it generosity if you want, but it’s an expenditure. You can also extrapolate that there are savings to be had by employing these best practices that cost money, but let’s talk about them, and let’s employ the dollars wisely that give us the best return."

The task force recommends development of three facilities each including 35 units of what in the industry is known as " housing first" model apartments. Under the "housing first" approach, chronically homeless individuals battling the most severe substance abuse and mental health problems are provided small apartments in buildings staffed with specialists at little or no cost, and with no initial demand that they change their lifestyles.

The model is based on the notion that with stable housing in place, the chronically homeless then will have the motivation to keep up with their medications, dial back substance use and piece their lives back together. The approach is used by Preble Street at its Logan Place and Florence House facilities.

But the model isn’t universally agreed upon among service providers in Maine.

St. Martin De Porres in Lewiston, for instance, only takes in referrals and requires many shelter seekers to submit to background checks before they’ll be admitted.

"We are a dry shelter," Brother Richard said. "They cannot be under the influence of alcohol or high on drugs. They have to be clean. If they are drinking, they need to go through detox, and then detox would refer them to us. The other thing for us is that if a person has some mental health issues and they’ve been prescribed meds, they have to take their meds. If they don’t, we can’t help them."

Richard said his facility does not get state funding, but rather runs primarily on donations and charity.

"We want to put people back on their feet and we don’t want to ever see them again, rather than enabling them and continuing to let them use the system," he said. "It would not be fair [to our donors and volunteers] to just keep someone here that just wants to hang around."

The Bangor Area Homeless Shelter, Marble said, is "somewhere between ‘low barrier’ and ‘restrictive,’" meaning the organization will jettison shelter occupants who abuse substances or run afoul of the law while staying there.

He said that, unlike its Preble Street counterparts, his group "tries to minimize the services offered [on-site]," instead providing direction for where else in the community homeless individuals can seek therapy, counseling and financial programs.

Marble said that headquartering programs in homeless facilities could inadvertently "put up a barrier to those who need a lot of the same services but don’t want to go to a homeless shelter to get them."

The "housing first" model does not require tenants to agree to substance use or behavior standards and often is signified by on-site counseling and care services.

According to a study released last year by Thomas McLaughlin, University of New England associate professor of social work, a group of nearly 100 Greater Portland homeless individuals with disabilities cost taxpayers a total of $622,386 less while living in stable housing than they did while living on the streets – with cost avoidance coming primarily from more efficient use of medical care and fewer run-ins with law enforcement.

"With Logan Place and Florence House, we have seen people who had been homeless for years, and are now living in permanent, stable living environments," Brennan said. "So we have two concrete examples of what works to reduce homelessness and to assist people who have been homeless for extended periods of time find permanent housing. Why would we not want to replicate and make those kinds of programs more available?"

The Chamber’s response to the task force report expressed worries that more housing units for the homeless would just trigger an even more overwhelming increase in homeless people.

Swann said the "housing first" facilities have been shown to have an opposite effect on shelter numbers.

"We have a terrible overflow problem," he said. "We had that problem before in 2003, 2004 and 2005, and it went away entirely when we opened Logan Place. The overflow shelters were used seven out of every 10 nights prior to opening Logan Place. The night we opened, it wasn’t used at all. [And it stayed that way] for years."

Gardner agreed, saying the city began having to use overflow facilities again only in 2009, which he said reinforces the notion held by service providers that Portland’s homeless numbers didn’t explode because the city’s "too attractive" to the homeless, but rather because of the economic collapse that left thousands jobless and motivated state funding cuts to mental health and substance abuse programs that had helped keep many people in stable lifestyles.

"The economy is absolutely a foundational issue, but the whole arena of supportive services can be as well," said Marble of Bangor.

Gardner said "there’s no question in my mind" that the emergence of more "housing first" units would reduce or eliminate overflows at the city’s emergency shelters like Logan Place did when it opened in 2005.

"To say that if you build more ‘housing first’ model projects, they’ll just keep filling up, I don’t think that’s fair because there are so many other factors that play into homelessness," he continued. "I think if we’re sitting here five years from now, the economy is in a different place, and substance abuse and mental health counseling programs are strong, I think we’re looking at an entirely different homelessness situation."

And that, O’Neil said, likely would quiet Chamber concerns regardless of where the shelter users originate.

"If 440 homeless people in Portland shrinks to 200 homeless people in Portland and it remains at 66 percent from outside of Portland, will anybody be complaining? I don’t think so," he said.