It looks like there are more homeless veterans in Maine. But the numbers don’t tell the whole story

At first glance, statistics on the number of veterans in Maine who are homeless seem to point to a troubling trend.

From 2008 to 2015, the number of homeless identified as veterans jumped 70 percent in Maine, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which annually organizes a census of the country’s homeless populations on one night.

The actual numbers are low compared with bigger states: There were 89 homeless veterans in Maine in 2008, and 151 this year. But that spike still contrasts with a smaller overall veteran population here in Maine, as well as a drop in the number of homeless veterans across the country, as highlighted in a recent Pew Charitable Trusts report.

But those who work with homeless veterans in Greater Portland — which has the largest share of the state’s homeless population — say it’s likely their efforts to identify and help these people that are responsible for the increase. In other words, we’ve probably counted more homeless veterans over the longer term because we’re doing a better job of finding them, they say.

And a closer look at the numbers actually shows a recent decline in the number of homeless veterans once service providers began trying more aggressively to identify them and connect them with programs and housing vouchers.

“What we have seen specifically in the last four years is more systematic and broad outreach taking place funded through programs like the VA’s [Support Services for Veterans Families] program,” said Phil Allen, who heads Veterans Housing Services for Portland homeless service provider Preble Street. “What that translates to is finding more veterans. … Now we are getting more self-engaged veterans, veterans who are coming to us, either through providers or by their own [volition], saying ‘I saw a flier.’”

Eighteen months ago, President Barack Obama set a deadline of the end of 2015 for local governments around the country to find a home for all homeless veterans who want one. The majority of states — 33, by Pew’s count — have made significant statistical progress toward that goal. So against that backdrop, Maine’s increase stands out.

But a closer look at the figures suggests there’s some truth to what Allen is saying. Although veterans make up a higher percentage of the state’s overall homeless population — 6.4 percent — than at any point in at least a decade, the overall number of homeless veterans in Maine is actually on a three-year decline.

Advocates counted 164 in 2013 — which is around the time that more aggressive outreach efforts would likely have begun moving the needle — and that number has fallen each year since. In 2014, the number fell to 152, then by a tiny increment to 151 this year.

“In Portland, we have two outreach workers in the community aggressively engaging veterans who might be camping out and not taking advantage of services,” Allen said, adding that another outreach worker has been deployed to the Midcoast area, persistently posting fliers for homeless veterans at soup kitchens, post offices and libraries.

In contrast, states with bigger cities and larger populations have had more staff and resources to identify homeless veterans over the years and connect them with resources.

California, New York and Texas, for example, are among the states showing huge gains in getting homeless veterans off the streets, according to Pew.

Nationwide, the number of homeless veterans dropped by 27 percent, to 47,504, between 2011 and 2015, according to Pew. That roughly coincided with a ramp-up in federal funding for programs targeting homeless veterans, from $399 million in 2009 to $1.37 billion in 2014.

Mike Merrill, who manages Volunteers of America Northern New England’s veterans facilities in Saco and Biddeford, said even a recent change of phrasing being used on a questionnaire distributed in Maine during the annual Point In Time Survey has made a difference.

“We’ve happened to see an increase based on the wording of the surveys out there,” Merrill said. “Some veterans don’t think of themselves as vets because they never saw combat. But those who know the lingo know that there are peacetime vets as well as wartime vets. Now that they’ve changed the wording to say ‘Have you served in the military?’ instead of ‘Are you a veteran?’, there are more people who answer ‘yes’ to that question.”

Roger Goodoak, the founder of the Portland-based Maine Homeless Veterans Alliance, regularly patrols the city with blankets, gloves and other supplies in search of veterans living on the streets.

“I haven’t found a qualified veteran in weeks,” said Goodoak, a Navy veteran who experienced homelessness himself in the past.

“It’s very difficult right now to find homeless veterans on the streets. They’re getting identified and processed very rapidly,” he said. “If you come into Portland, you get into a shelter and they find out you’re a qualified veteran, they take care of you. They have a ‘Let’s get veterans off the streets’ mentality, and they’re successful.”