Maine partners dedicated to ending chronic homelessness by 2015

Autumn is a beautiful time to enjoy the natural beauty of the Maine coast, so it was exciting to receive an invitation from the Maine Affordable Housing Coalition and the Maine State Housing Authority to participate in their annual conference. We were thrilled to see that the conference planners included a workshop track on the issue of homelessness and sessions on such important topics as homeownership, banking, multi-family development, and property management.

Before the conference, USICH Executive Director Barbara Poppe and I were honored to spend the day with several of Maine’s leaders on housing and homelessness. We visited Florence House, a Housing First development for women who were formerly homeless. A partnership between Avesta Housing and Preble Street, the property provides efficiency apartments as well as a safe haven and emergency shelter. Avesta CEO Dana Totman should be proud of the efforts he and others have made to bring this much-needed housing and service development to Portland.

Barb and I were also inspired by our visit to the Joe Kreisler Teen Shelter. Recently opened this year, the shelter is a well-designed space that offers a range of services in addition to case management and overnight beds. Mark Swann, Preble Street Executive Director, pointed out that the shelter operates with community partners that have space in the building, including a health center and education programs. Preble Street has just received a two-year, $400,000 grant from the Department of Justice to support its work with youth who are victims of sex trafficking. Here in Portland Maine, Preble Street and its many partners have developed a coordinated system of services that are meeting the needs of vulnerable youth. The motto, "support young people, especially those without a safety net," adorns the walls of the shelter. And that is exactly what Preble Street is doing.

Barb and I also attended a lunch meeting with Mayor Michael Brennan, William Burney of the HUD Maine Office, Greg Payne of the Maine Affordable Housing Coalition, John Gallagher of the Maine State Housing Authority, Mark Adelson of the Portland Housing Authority, and others from the local community. One of the topics of discussion was HUD’s recent guidance on how public housing authorities and multi-family property owners could support efforts to end homelessness. Also, Mayor Brennan expressed his interest in expanding workforce development programs so that people experiencing homelessness could be a part of the economic development currently going on in Portland.

That afternoon, Barb and I visited Elm Terrace, where Mercy Health System and Community Housing of Maine have teamed up to provide housing within an addiction recovery milieu for women who had experienced homelessness. Many of the women in this program have gone on to higher education, employment, and even homeownership.

State and city officials and local HUD representatives joined us at Elm Terrace to examine strategies that would advance Maine’s progress to end chronic homelessness by 2015. Maine’s Statewide Homeless Council has been a leader in this effort, and everyone in the room agreed that "long term stayers" in shelters must be prioritized. Using the largest adult shelter as an example, Cullen Ryan of Community Housing of Maine presented a report that indicated that 116 of the total 130 beds will be taken up by the 5 percent of people that stay night after night for a half a year or longer. This situation leaves only 14 beds for the remaining 2,050 people who pass through over the course of the year.

Cullen stated that this has resulted in the city now maintaining three overflow shelters. According to the state’s HMIS data, less than 15 percent of permanent supportive housing units were made available to people who are chronically homeless. The national average is around 30 to 40 percent. Further, VA Secretary Eric Shinseki has asked that 65 percent of all Veterans Assistance Supported Housing (VASH) vouchers be targeted to Veterans who are chronically homeless, and HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan has urged communities to target 100 percent of CoC housing resources to people who are chronically homeless.

Maine Housing committed 100 vouchers to the effort and the Portland Housing Authority is interested in helping with 40 vouchers. A recent decision supported by the State Department of Health and Human Services will also target Shelter Plus Care units to this chronic population. It is clear that Maine is off to a great start in assembling a housing inventory for the "long term stayers."

It was apparent that these dedicated partners will continue to work together with a renewed sense of purpose and direction. Clearer still was the State’s real opportunity to bend the curve and be on track to end chronic homelessness by the end of 2015.