Maine housing officials pushing for restored Section 8 vouchers to stem spike in homelessness

BANGOR, Maine – Maine groups that deal with housing and homelessness are joining counterparts across the country, pushing Congress to restore funding for Section 8 vouchers so individuals and families who are homeless or close to it can find a stable place of their own.

In last year’s across-the-board $1 trillion federal spending cuts, known as sequestration, Maine lost 500 of its roughly 12,000 Section 8 housing vouchers to put low-income families in affordable housing, according to Greg Payne of Avesta Housing in Portland and the Maine Affordable Housing Coalition. Across the country, more than 72,000 housing vouchers were lost because of funding constraints.

A federal budget agreement for fiscal year 2014 restored funding for about half of those lost vouchers – Maine got back 250, but is still 250 shy of pre-sequestration levels.

"Housing choice vouchers are really the single most effective tool we have to reduce homelessness," Payne said during a recent phone interview. He and Dennis Marble, director of the Bangor Area Homeless Shelter, have said that officials who deal with homelessness know how to fix the problem – rapid placement of homeless people in stable, affordable housing units.

"I find that tragic," Payne said. "We have the solutions, we just don’t have the political will to apply them."

In 2013, 7,700 Mainers experienced homelessness, according to Payne. In Portland, the problem has become that homeless shelters have overflow shelters for their overflow shelters.

Housing officials in Maine have been lobbying U.S. Sen. Susan Collins to push for funding that will restore the housing vouchers to pre-sequestration levels. Collins is the top Republican on the Transportation and Housing and Urban Development Subcommittee, which sets HUD’s budget.

This Wednesday, April 2, HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan will appear before her subcommittee to present HUD’s proposed budget and discuss priorities before next year’s funding bill is developed. Planning for the fiscal year 2015 budget is still in its infancy.

"Certainly, we have very serious budget issues to address, but providing housing assistance to our most vulnerable citizens must remain a priority," Collins said in an email. "I have met with Maine housing authority directors who have told me that they could do more with existing funds if there were more flexibility in our federal housing programs. That is an issue I will be taking up with HUD Secretary Donovan at our appropriations hearing on Wednesday."

To restore the roughly 40,000 pre-sequestration vouchers that have yet to be refunded, the federal government will need to come up with about $320 million. Maine would only need about $2 million of that to get back to its norm.

If the funding isn’t restored to pre-sequestration levels in this coming budget, Payne said it could affect the number of housing vouchers Maine gets for years to come. The way funding works for the program is that the previous year’s numbers are dropped into the formula for determining the next year’s, making the lower-than-normal allocation the new base and keeping housing authorities from placing more individuals and families.

Demand for vouchers is high. There are 20 local Maine housing authorities across the state, with Maine State Housing Authority covering areas of the state that don’t have their own housing authority.

According to a 2010 survey conducted by Maine Affordable Housing Coalition, while there are 12,000 housing vouchers in Maine, there is demand for 12,000 more. Still, that number falls far lower than the actual demand because about half of the state’s housing authorities had closed their waiting lists by 2010 because they were getting too long, according to Payne.

Fewer vouchers would create more significant, drawn-out problems for people struggling with homelessness and poverty, according to Marble.

"The more insidious part of this, which is hard to quantify, is that the more you lengthen stay in a shelter, what that does to people and then what that costs the rest of us," Marble said.

People who spend more time in shelters see their struggles with depression compound, and they can get sicker both physically and emotionally. That can result in people ending up in the emergency room or a jail cell, according to Marble. Those struggling with addiction can relapse due to the stress of homelessness.

"In the grand scheme of things, if we’re talking about something like not making homelessness worse, it strikes me as making sense for appropriators to do all they can to get us back to at least where we were before sequestration," Payne said.