AUGUSTA, Maine – Homeless advocates from across the state lined up to support legislation that would provide an additional $3.5 million a year for homeless shelters.
Advocates say they’re not sure that additional funding is enough to handle the demands facing 42 shelters across the state that have about 1,000 people a night seeking a bed.
The state currently appropriates just $380,000 from the state’s General Fund to the shelters; most of their funding comes from the Maine State Housing Authority, which allocates $2.4 million from its Housing Opportunities for Maine Fund, supplied by part of the real estate transfer tax. Democratic state Sen. Justin Alfond of Portland says that is woefully inadequate to meet current needs, and that three-quarters of shelters’ budgets are relying on on contributions and bake sales to provide a fundamental service to local cities and towns.
That leaves “local communities in a constant state of instability and worrying about how they will provide safe shelter for those whose lives have unraveled,” he says.
Advocates from across the state made their case to lawmakers that serve on the Legislature’s Labor, Commerce, Research and Economic Development Committee. Shawn Yardley from the Region Three Homeless Council in Bangor says the reasons for homelessness are as varied as Mainers themselves.
“The major factors are economy, lack of affordable housing, untreated mental illness, substance abuse, domestic violence,” he says. “The allocation of resources to respond to these factors will directly impact the need for shelters and the resulting cost.”
Mark Swann, executive director of Preble Street in Portland, says that on any a given night in Maine, there are 1,000 Mainers sleeping in one of 42 shelters. He says they don’t want to be there, but they want to survive and many have a mental health diagnosis.
Dr. Trip Gardner from Penobscot Community Health Care, which runs the Hope House in Bangor, says roughly four out of five served last year at that facility had such a diagnosis. And the needs are not just in the cities. Francine Garland-Stark of the Hope and Justice Project in Aroostook County says the organization had three shelters at one time, but had to close one for lack of funds.
“When people call a domestic violence hotline and need shelter, we know it is not a choice they are making because they want to be there,” she says. “It is a choice of last resort to seek safety and to survive.”
John Richardson of Bread of Life Ministries in Augusta says not all of those people seeking shelter fit the stereotype of an older unkempt man. He says some of those who seek help from the state’s only veteran-specific shelter are in their 20s and are veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan.
“They came home to a group of folks around them and their families or their friends that didn’t understand what it was like to be over there,” he says. “And you will say, ‘But John, not everybody is in combat.’ True. But there are people riding on transports wondering if any minute an explosive device is going to go off. When you come home and people don’t get that, you have to do something about it.”
No one opposed the measure at the public hearing, but the bill’s fate is far from certain. Like other proposals with a price tag, it will wait until the end of the session after the state budget is passed and will have to compete with dozens of other spending requests.