Searching Under Bridges, Behind Dumpsters for Maine's Homeless

Trained volunteers joined social workers, homeless shelter staff and military veterans in the annual one-night survey of the state’s homeless population last night. The nationwide census is required by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to address the needs of the homeless. It’s a need that’s growing statewide, and especially in Maine’s largest city, where six, cramped shelters can’t keep up with demand. As Susan Sharon reports, for some homeless people, the preferred option is still a makeshift camp under a tunnel, tree or overpass (click here to listen to the story).

As commuters head home during the 5:00 rush hour, hundreds of Portland’s homeless are lining up for dinner at one of the city’s shelters. Last week the Preble Street shelter served more than 500 meals in one night. That’s about a hundred more than usual.

At the nearby Oxford Street Shelter, it’s the same kind of story. For those who work with the homeless, getting people inside is a small success, a chance to make contact, hook them up with counseling and other services and eventually even a permanent place to live.

"When we’re approaching folks we want to be very, very respectful and just say, ‘Guys, we’re doing some outreach tonight. We’re looking to collect some information. Would you like to participate in a survey?’" says Rob Parritt, the assistant director of the Oxford Street Shelter, where several teams are about to embark on the annual homelessness survey.

Attaching a number to the homelessness problem helps determine how cities like Portland allocate their federal funding. Parritt says it’s easy to count those who show up at the door. What’s more difficult is to find the people who are living below the radar.

"For some folks who really don’t want to be found, they’re not going to be found, you know what I mean? ‘Cause folks have been living outside for years and avoid us," he says. "But the places we’ve identified – we have a very experienced group of folks in this room and we know the known hang-out spots."

"My name is Betsy Whitman. I work with Homeless Voices for Justice, which is the advocacy group out of Preble Street made up of homeless or formerly homeless people."

Whitman is accompanied on foot on this rainy, unusually balmy January night by three other shelter workers who’ve been assigned to the greater Deering Oaks Park area. Equipped with flashlights and wearing boots and neon-colored vests, they look behind dumpsters and bleachers, under bridges and brush, anywhere someone could conceivably find shelter or camp out.

A community organizer and advocate, Whitman says she’s never been homeless and it wouldn’t be something she could survive.

"When I look at homeless people and people say, ‘Oh, they should get a job,’ I’m like, ‘They have a job. They are working hard to survive,’" she says. "When you have to carry everything you own around with you all day long and stay warm and make sure you get in line for food and get in line for a bed, the majority of people are sleeping on mats on the floor, six inches away from someone else. I couldn’t do it."

To deal with the overflow numbers of homeless people, the city of Portland has opened up an office area to keep people warm. But fire code regulations require that lights in the reception area are left on at night and that people sleep sitting up in chairs.
City officials ackowledge that the situation is not ideal and that it’s one reason some of Portland’s homeless prefer to stay out in cold. They say they are working to come up with a better solution.

"It’s very tiny in there, I mean just very tiny. I don’t know how to describe it, not really a tent, just something to keep the rain out and the snow, I guess," says team leader Harrison Deah. Not far from the interstate, off the beaten path, Deah has come across a homeless man in a rudimentary camp. The man, about 30 years old, declines to be interviewed for this story but agrees to speak privately with Deah. He tells him he’s been restricted from the shelter for fighting.

"He said it’s been a long time that he’s been in and out of jail and then out on the streets, so he can’t even remember how long he’s been homeless," Deah says. "So he is definitely chronically homeless."

That distinction is important because, shelter workers say, the longer someone remains homeless, the harder it is to place them in permanent housing, something that remains the goal. Deah and the others do what they can to try to convince people to come in for a hot meal, get some clean, warm socks and make contact with caseworkers.

When the man tells Deah that his homeless brother was allowed back into the shelter after getting in a fight, Deah tells him that’s all the more reason to give it another try.

"He was kind enough to talk to us," Deah says. "I think that was great, just getting his information out there, maybe. If this helped, that’s good."

Results from the statewide homelessness survey are not expected until sometime in March. Last year more than 7,700 people spent the night in Maine’s homeless shelters. And this year that number is expected to rise.