Homelessness is not myth in York County, says social worker

YORK COUNTY – A new method to determine the number of homeless individuals and families in Maine has produced surprisingly good results, according to the local coordinator for the state’s annual point-in-time survey, held Jan. 30.

Homeless individuals called in, according to Amy Marcotte, social worker at the Sanford Veterans Center in Springvale.

"This is the second year that we have sponsored the survey in York County," Marcotte said. "Last year, we developed a five-prong strategy. We did the traditional mobile patrol, called around to food pantries, and we put up rip-tag fliers so the homeless could call us. Surprisingly, shockingly, that worked the best."

Of the 72 individuals counted as homeless in York County this year, more than a dozen – an estimated 13 or 14 – called in, said Marcotte.

While there’s no official way to verify that those on the phone are truly homeless, "in talking to these folks there’s no one having a good time telling me their living situation," said Marcotte, who has 20 years of experience in social work.

This year, Marcotte and a slew of volunteers once again hung fliers with the phone number posted on tear tabs in area police departments – including the York Police Department – grocery stores, libraries and anywhere else they could, she said.

Also fruitful was standing at the doors of local food pantries and surveying the people using the service who were willing to talk, she said.

Marcotte does not have figures by town, but said numbers are up this year over last. In 2012, the Sanford Veterans Center surveyed 51 people as homeless, with about a dozen of those individuals calling the center, she said.

The higher figures this year may be because of a larger population of homeless individuals, or a more concentrated effort to find those people needing help, according to Marcotte.

When volunteers do the count, she said, "they ask people to share information about their living situation and try to encourage them to go to a shelter or to get some services. It’s not just a count, it’s outreach."

The volunteers looked in the usual social service channels of shelters and food pantries, but also found people Marcotte believes would not otherwise have been counted.

Volunteers went to known encampments and looked in the back of strip malls and along cleared sections of power lines, where people are known to spend the night, she said. They also visited libraries and other places where people go to keep warm.

Included in the count were those who had temporary shelter, but who either were about to be evicted or were sleeping at a relative’s or friend’s house because they had no housing of their own, Marcotte said.

Homelessness can be "two or three people living with an elderly parent or with friends, unable to pay the rent," she said. "There are families and individuals living in cars, campers and campgrounds. They are either living on the streets, or doubled up living on somebody’s couch, in an abandoned home, or in a camper. These are the poorest of the poor. It runs the gamut from middle-aged folks to younger kids and mothers with kids."

York County’s numbers will be added to figures gathered by the Maine State Housing Authority, which conducts the point-in-time survey each year, according to spokeswoman Deborah Turcotte. The 2013 tallies will be available in March, she said.

The state is required to give homeless numbers to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), which uses the figures as part of a federal funding formula, Turcotte said.

The annual point-in-time count conducted Jan. 25, 2012, found 1,050 people in the state were homeless the night of the survey, she said.

"In the last few years, the numbers have been going up for this particular night," Turcotte said. "They found in Portland (Wednesday night) there were more people in camps."

Marcotte said the focus on homelessness has always been in more urban areas, which does not apply to York County.

"They focus on Portland and Bangor," Marcotte said. "It’s more difficult to do (a count) in rural areas. Homelessness in York County is an invisible problem; it’s not the stereotypical hanging out on street corners. There has been a pretty large myth there’s no homeless problem in York County."

Of the 51 people in York County counted as homeless last year, 17 were military veterans, according to Marcotte. The Sanford Veterans Center is part of the federal Department of Veterans Affairs, she said. Marcotte is also chairman of the Maine Military Community Network.

"There’s direct benefit to having good stats," she said. "The Preble Street Resource Center in Portland has grant money to do case work in Cumberland County because of numbers presented last year; they’ve gotten permission to extend services to York County. We’ve had a dozen vets benefit directly from it."

For more information, call the Sanford Veterans Center at 490-1513.