$50,000 set aside to build apartments for homeless

PORTLAND, Maine – The Portland City Council on Monday night unanimously voted to set aside $50,000 to distribute to a developer willing build a so-called "housing first" apartment project for homeless people.

The measure will designate the money from the city’s Housing Trust Fund, which currently has just more than $724,000, to the cause.

Jim Devine, an advocate with the group Homeless Voices for Justice, said he’s experienced homelessness in Portland and that as many as 550 people in the city stayed in city shelters on a given night this winter.

"We’ve all experienced feelings of fear and embarrassment of not knowing where you’re going to sleep at night. Imagine trying to maintain your mental or physical health in these conditions," Devine told the council. "Having a safe place to call home is the first step in achieving a stable life."

Christopher O’Neil, representing the Portland Community Chamber, said his group considers "this proposal to be a very high use of those funds."

With Monday night’s approval, the city will issue a request for proposals from developers interested in pursuing the construction of one such facility, and the $50,000 would be in the form of a grant award to help offset predevelopment costs, such as site location.

A city task force charged with developing a strategy for reducing homelessness in Portland delivered a report in 2012 calling for, among other steps, the construction of three 35-unit apartment facilities for the homeless.

Mayor Michael Brennan reiterated plans to pursue more such housing in a multifaceted plan to combat homelessness unveiled last August.

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.

The model is built on the theory that at-risk homeless individuals are more likely to take their medications and adhere to counseling if they have stable housing. Many shelters or housing facilities require clients to be sober before being admitted, which "housing first" advocates say places too high a barrier for many struggling individuals to overcome.

According to a 2011 study 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.

Two such facilities are currently operated in Portland by homeless service provider Preble Street and its partners from Avesta Housing. Those facilities are Logan Place and Florence House.

"Logan Place and Florence House have saved lives, and we’re confident more housing first projects would save more lives," Devine told the council Monday.

"This is a significant step for the city to invest in this process. We know from our experiences with Logan Place and Florence House this is a pathway toward reversing homelessness," agreed Brennan.

Preble Street and Portland Department of Health and Human Services officials have said when Logan Place opened in 2005, it ended three years of regular shelter overflows.

Since the recession began three years later, the city has again experienced an increase in homelessness, with more than 450 people staying on the streets or in shelters now nightly. That represents a jump from less than 300 in 2009.