“There’s been a lot of social services throughout the state of Maine that have been working collaboratively, together, to really make a dent and helping people out of homelessness,” Preble Street Deputy Director Donna Yellen said.
She says that despite the decrease in people experiencing homelessness, there is a lot of work that needs to be done.
“This is a problem that is far from over, in fact, we’re nervous that this is changing [for the worse],” Yellen said.
She says that driving to work, there are more people visibly homeless on the streets than she’s ever seen before.
“Those are our brothers and sisters, and they deserve better than huddling in the doorway in their jackets,” Yellen said. “Every night that it’s cold like it is right now, some of these vulnerable people, who have a lot of mental health needs, will not make it through the night.”
Dozens turned out last Friday to honor the 43 members of the homeless community who lost their lives in 2019.
For the last 25 years, people have gathered in Portland for the Homeless Persons’ Memorial Vigil, an event to mourn and pay tribute to the lives lost and to reaffirm the need to help find homes for those without. The event Dec. 20, coinciding with the winter solstice, started at the Preble Street Resource Center and ended at Monument Square for speeches, songs and the reading of the names of the 43 homeless people who died this year.
“What we see and what we know nationwide is when someone experiences chronic homelessness, which means they are living in a shelter or outside for years, that takes years off of someone’s life,” said Caitlin Corrigan, Health Services Director for Preble Street.
The average age at death in Cumberland County for 2019 is 80.1 years old, according to the National Center for Health Statistics. The average age at death for the greater Portland homeless population over the last year was 55, including one as young as 35.
Tim Keefe found himself homeless in his tent in rural Maine. It was below freezing. He hadn’t had food in two days. “I’ve worked since I was 11. I’ve paid taxes my whole life. Now, they are denying me food stamps? I don’t understand this,” he said.
Keefe is a veteran, father, and widower in his 50s. He’s been homeless since 2015. After he served in the Navy for two years, Keefe found that he had little access to support when he reentered society. Even so, he was determined to find a job. He had a wife and two daughters to take care of.
Some assume that because these folks aren’t elderly, disabled, or raising children, they don’t need serious help. But Meredith Cook, who works at Preble Street, a Maine nonprofit, debunked these claims with the reality of the situation: Living on $12,490 a year — which is the federal poverty level for individual households — is very little money. Add in the labyrinth of government bureaucracy and cuts in domestic spending, and even more people are falling through the cracks. Waiver restrictions completely ignore surrounding circumstances that make able-bodied adults unable to find 20 hours of employment, work training, or community service a week.
“We see this as a cruel punishment for people living in poverty.” — Meredith Cook, Preble Street Social Change Advocate
The Trump administration is tightening work requirements for the federal food stamp program in a move that will slash benefits for hundreds of thousands of people.
The rule will restrict states from exempting work-eligible adults from having to obtain steady employment to participate in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, which feeds more than 36 million Americans.
The Agriculture Department says the change would save $5.5 billion over five years and cut benefits for about 688,000 recipients.
A rule change from the Trump administration could knock thousands of Maine families, seniors, and people with disabilities off food stamps.
Meredith Cook of the Preble Street Maine Hunger Initiative says the proposed rule jeopardizes other federal benefits like free and reduced lunches.
“Many families are directly certified into the school lunch program based on their SNAP eligibility. So, when we see families being kicked off the SNAP program, they’re also going to lose that direct certification,” Cook said.
Maine DHHS says 27 percent of Maine’s food stamp recipients could lose their benefit.
That’s 44,000 Mainers, including 11,000 children and nearly 10,000 seniors or people with disabilities.
(Act now to save SNAP! Submit a comment opposing this harmful proposal: bit.ly/30Rlva4)
Dr. Ann Marie Lemire, medical director of the Cumberland County Jail, could have given lawmakers a raft of statistics. Instead, she told them a story.
About five weeks ago, a man near the end of his sentence was desperately afraid of what his release would mean. He was homeless and was worried that once he was back on the street, he would resume using opioids. He connected with Portland Public Health and made an appointment to speak with a community educator after he got out. But before that meeting could occur, he overdosed and died, less than 24 hours after his release.
It’s a tragic story, but not that unusual. Maine was unprepared for the opioid overdose epidemic, which has taken lives of people from every economic stratum. But as the state steps up its response to the crisis, special attention needs to be paid to the most vulnerable – people who are homeless and can’t access treatment as easily as someone with a more stable life. A bill to address that special circumstance, L.D. 1337, is before the Legislature and should be passed.
In the wake of her formal inauguration, during which Governor Janet Mills said she will implement voter-approved Medicaid expansion, advocacy groups are hopeful that Maine’s newly elected Democratic governor will quickly sideline the potential for work requirements to be placed on the state’s Medicaid recipients, an option granted by the federal government on Dec. 21 to former Governor Paul LePage in his final days in office.
Preble Street and other poverty relief organizations in Maine are relieved that the 2018 US Farm Bill has passed with the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, intact.
The $867-billion dollar omnibus bill passed with strong bipartisan support in both chambers, but not before a tense year of negotiations, including a House version of the bill that would have cut SNAP and imposed work requirements, potentially reducing or ending food benefits for some 2-million recipients.
“We absolutely needed this legislation to come through,” says Director of Advocacy for Preble Street, Heather Zimmerman. Zimmerman says their nonprofit organization served about 600-thousand meals to hungry Mainers last year. “Quite simply we are already stretched to capacity. We cannot fill the gap if government programs are eroded.”
“Yes, thoughts and prayers are appreciated, but to truly honor our veterans, we need to move beyond platitudes. Our nation must commit to providing reliable safety net programs for the many veterans who struggle with poverty and hunger when they return home.” – Tim Keefe, advocate and veteran