Topic: Soup Kitchens

Plan offers ways to aid Portland’s homeless

PORTLAND – The city’s Health and Human Services Department is recommending that Portland establish housing where homeless people can stay sober, develop a team of specialists to help the homeless find housing and hire more workers to interview people who enter shelters.

That action plan, to be presented Tuesday night to the City Council’s Public Safety, Health and Human Services Committee, would cost almost $1 million. The recommendations are based on a report issued in November by the city’s Task Force to Develop a Strategic Plan to Prevent and End Homelessness.

"These are just ideas that my staff came up with" after reviewing the report," said Doug Gardner, director of the Health and Human Services Department. "They are not set in stone."

It ultimately will be up to the City Council to decide whether any of the proposals are worthy of funding, but city officials say state funds could be available.

The 18-member task force was formed by the City Council in 2011 to examine the issue of homelessness and develop ways to prevent it. The council accepted the task force’s report in November 2012 but didn’t act, opting instead to have its committees review the proposals in depth.

The Public Safety, Health and Human Services Committee, which will meet at 5:30 p.m. Tuesday at City Hall, has four proposals to consider:

• Develop temporary housing for homeless people who have been through detox or recovery programs and want to live in an environment where they can continue to work on staying sober. Estimated startup cost: $250,000.

• Develop a team of five to seven workers who would interview people as they enter a shelter to find out where they have been living, why they are homeless, whether they are eligible for welfare benefits, and whether they have medical issues, among other things. Under the current system, it can take as long as two days before those interviews can be done, because of staffing shortages. Estimated cost: $250,000 to $350,000.

• Hire a team of five housing specialists to work in shelters. The team would help people apply for apartments. Estimated cost: $250,000.

• Hire two people to give budgeting advice to homeless people who have some type of income. About 40 percent of the people who use the Oxford Street Shelter get some form of financial assistance. Estimated cost: $77,000.

Mark Swann, director of the Preble Street Resource Center, said he likes all of the task force’s recommendations and is particularly interested in having a sober house program.

Two weeks ago, when temperatures fell to near zero, Preble Street served 512 dinners to homeless people in one night, a record for the soup kitchen, which typically serves 350 dinners a night.

"I have never seen anything like it in all my years," said Swann, who plans to attend Tuesday’s meeting. "I get asked all the time, "’Is (homelessness) going to get worse?’" I have to tell them I just don’t know. That’s what is really scary."

Gov’s Proposed Cap on General Assistance Funds Worries Maine Municipal Leaders

In an effort to close a $112 million Medicaid shortfall in the state budget, the LePage administration wants to cut back on the amount of money the state gives municipalities for general assistance programs. The governor is proposing to cap total state spending on general assistance through June 30th at $10.1 million, about $1.5 million less than last year. As A.J. Higgins reports, community advocates converged on the State House today and urged lawmakers to fully fund the program.

Click here to listen to the story

For many Mainers, local general assistance programs often mean the difference between some form of shelter and living on the street. At Homeless Voices for Justice, a statewide group that advocates for the poor, Thomas Ptacek says Maine’s safety net is already stretched to the breaking point for those trying to survive a winter without a permanent roof over their heads.

And now, Gov. LePage is proposing to stretch it even further, by imposing a $10.0 million cap on general assistance funds for the poor. With much of that already spent this year, the cap would leave the state with less than $4 million to return to municipalities through June 30th.

Ptacek wonders if the money can last that long. "What will shelters do if the proposed GA cap puts more people into homelessness?" he asks.

Others say it’s a cutback in funding for some of Maine’s poorest residents at a time when they can least afford it. Dozens of people turned out for a hearing on the supplemental budget cut before the Appropriations Committee. Mark Swann, executive director at Preble Street in Portland, told lawmakers that the need for general assistance funding has never been greater.

"Just last Wednesday when the temperature was below zero we served 512 people at dinner – 512 people in one sitting at one dinner in one soup kitchen," Swann said. "Five hundred and twelve people. I have a hard time even saying that. It was so crowded and so jam-packed that people eventually stopped even looking for a place to sit – there were no seats – they just sat down where they stood."

Many of the state’s large service center communities, such as Portland, Lewiston and Bangor, see the general assistance cap as just another in a series of policy changes by the LePage administration that shift costs previously bourne by the state onto local property taxpayers.

The governor’s supplemental budget also cuts $12.6 million in general purpose aid for k-12 education. And in the proposed budget for the next two years, LePage plans to temporarily eliminate nearly $100 million in municipal revenue-sharing funds. In his weekend radio message, LePage accused the Maine Municipal Association of making the funding cuts sound worse than they really are.

"Unfortunately, information distributed by the Maine Municipal Assoication is not accurate and completly self-serving," LePage said. "MMA claims that municipalities will lose $284 million over the next two years. What they don’t tell you is that revenue sharing has never been fully funded dating back to my predecessor."

At MMA, Geoff Herman defends his organization’s characterization of the LePage cuts, which he says are another shift onto the local property taxpayers.

"The numbers that we used are based on what current law says the distribution to revenue sharing should be, so our focus is what’s in the proposed budget would discontinue current law, and our obligation was to identify what current law says should be distributed," Herman said.

State Rep. Peggy Rotundo, House chair of the Appropriations Committee says she hopes that the committee can find a way to soften the blow of the proposed general assistance cuts opposed by the MMA and other agencies.

"There’s a great concern about this and the implications of it, and what this would mean to communities, either in terms of great cost shift, in terms of their local property taxes or the lack of services which would create all sorts of other problems like greater homelessness," Rotundo says.

Lawmakers on the panel are expected to wrap up the series of public hearings this week, as they prepare for another round of hearings on the two-year state budget.

Searching Under Bridges, Behind Dumpsters for Maine’s Homeless

Trained volunteers joined social workers, homeless shelter staff and military veterans in the annual one-night survey of the state’s homeless population last night. The nationwide census is required by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to address the needs of the homeless. It’s a need that’s growing statewide, and especially in Maine’s largest city, where six, cramped shelters can’t keep up with demand. As Susan Sharon reports, for some homeless people, the preferred option is still a makeshift camp under a tunnel, tree or overpass (click here to listen to the story).

As commuters head home during the 5:00 rush hour, hundreds of Portland’s homeless are lining up for dinner at one of the city’s shelters. Last week the Preble Street shelter served more than 500 meals in one night. That’s about a hundred more than usual.

At the nearby Oxford Street Shelter, it’s the same kind of story. For those who work with the homeless, getting people inside is a small success, a chance to make contact, hook them up with counseling and other services and eventually even a permanent place to live.

"When we’re approaching folks we want to be very, very respectful and just say, ‘Guys, we’re doing some outreach tonight. We’re looking to collect some information. Would you like to participate in a survey?’" says Rob Parritt, the assistant director of the Oxford Street Shelter, where several teams are about to embark on the annual homelessness survey.

Attaching a number to the homelessness problem helps determine how cities like Portland allocate their federal funding. Parritt says it’s easy to count those who show up at the door. What’s more difficult is to find the people who are living below the radar.

"For some folks who really don’t want to be found, they’re not going to be found, you know what I mean? ‘Cause folks have been living outside for years and avoid us," he says. "But the places we’ve identified – we have a very experienced group of folks in this room and we know the known hang-out spots."

"My name is Betsy Whitman. I work with Homeless Voices for Justice, which is the advocacy group out of Preble Street made up of homeless or formerly homeless people."

Whitman is accompanied on foot on this rainy, unusually balmy January night by three other shelter workers who’ve been assigned to the greater Deering Oaks Park area. Equipped with flashlights and wearing boots and neon-colored vests, they look behind dumpsters and bleachers, under bridges and brush, anywhere someone could conceivably find shelter or camp out.

A community organizer and advocate, Whitman says she’s never been homeless and it wouldn’t be something she could survive.

"When I look at homeless people and people say, ‘Oh, they should get a job,’ I’m like, ‘They have a job. They are working hard to survive,’" she says. "When you have to carry everything you own around with you all day long and stay warm and make sure you get in line for food and get in line for a bed, the majority of people are sleeping on mats on the floor, six inches away from someone else. I couldn’t do it."

To deal with the overflow numbers of homeless people, the city of Portland has opened up an office area to keep people warm. But fire code regulations require that lights in the reception area are left on at night and that people sleep sitting up in chairs.
City officials ackowledge that the situation is not ideal and that it’s one reason some of Portland’s homeless prefer to stay out in cold. They say they are working to come up with a better solution.

"It’s very tiny in there, I mean just very tiny. I don’t know how to describe it, not really a tent, just something to keep the rain out and the snow, I guess," says team leader Harrison Deah. Not far from the interstate, off the beaten path, Deah has come across a homeless man in a rudimentary camp. The man, about 30 years old, declines to be interviewed for this story but agrees to speak privately with Deah. He tells him he’s been restricted from the shelter for fighting.

"He said it’s been a long time that he’s been in and out of jail and then out on the streets, so he can’t even remember how long he’s been homeless," Deah says. "So he is definitely chronically homeless."

That distinction is important because, shelter workers say, the longer someone remains homeless, the harder it is to place them in permanent housing, something that remains the goal. Deah and the others do what they can to try to convince people to come in for a hot meal, get some clean, warm socks and make contact with caseworkers.

When the man tells Deah that his homeless brother was allowed back into the shelter after getting in a fight, Deah tells him that’s all the more reason to give it another try.

"He was kind enough to talk to us," Deah says. "I think that was great, just getting his information out there, maybe. If this helped, that’s good."

Results from the statewide homelessness survey are not expected until sometime in March. Last year more than 7,700 people spent the night in Maine’s homeless shelters. And this year that number is expected to rise.

Dining and decorating at Preble Street

Holiday parties are all about food, music and gifts, and for many of us who are guilty of taking our good fortune for granted, not always in that order. They’re about getting together with like-minded people and celebrating in style. They’re about appreciating what we’ve been able to give, and about what’s being given to us. And times being what they are, most businesses and organizations are cutting back on the invitations and festive offerings. However, this not the case at the annual Preble Street Resource Center Holiday Party being held this Friday from 11:30-2 p.m.

"As long as we’ve been operating as a soup kitchen, or in that capacity, about 20 years now, we’ve held a holiday party for our clients," said development coordinator, Melanie McKean. "We’ve always been blessed with very generous donors and supporters and have over 100 different entities who turn this event into a community project." Not surprisingly, the number of clients who will be joining the party – it’s for clients, not the general public – this Friday has gone up significantly to a staggering 700 adults, and the staff is ready.

In his second year overseeing the three parties under the Preble Street umbrella (there is also a party at the teen center for over 100 and a party for approximately 60 women at the Florence House), assistant director of in-kind donations, Matt Brown, is in need of goodies for the gift bags. "We still need gloves," Brown, 30, states. "We have hats, toiletries, socks, and other items, but we really need adult gloves for men and women." McKean enthusiastically concurs, "We can take them anytime, too, not just for this party." Gift bags for the woman and teens are supplemented with sweatshirts (hoodies for the latter) and like all holiday parties, decking the halls is a given.

McKean says, "This Friday the entire center – the kitchen, the dining area, the day shelter, will be decorated with handmade decorations from local school kids and, by others, that are, of course, donated. Clients like to help decorate, too. The center is, after all, home to many."

Speaking with the well deserved pride of any event coordinator planning a party of such magnitude, Brown is especially pleased with the full blown turkey dinner the clients will be served Friday. "This is really nice food. A full themed dinner with all the fixings and a substitute for those who don’t care for turkey." Reaping the benefits a major pre-Thanksgiving food drive, leftover turkeys and other donated cash and food items allow the center to go all out.

Clients will arrive at 11:30 instead of the usual noon meal time. After lunch, they’ll line up to receive their gift bags and will go upstairs to the day shelter, where more food will be served. "There’s finger food like sweets, platters of cookies and cake," says Brown. "Oh, and veggie platters, too. Not just sweets," McKean chimed in.

For the second year in a row, clients will be treated to the music of the Peterson Project, a "blues grazz acoustic trio," based out of New Gloucester. McKean says, "The live music thrills the clients and staff with the rich sounds they offer. At other events, we set up a microphone for people to sing and that’s fun too, but this makes this event extra special for all of us."

As the Preble Street staff and volunteers clean up the aftermath of a splendid turkey and music-filled Friday afternoon, I invite all of you to take a moment and join Santa in a tip of his hat to the angels on duty, and in wishing our most impoverished neighbors a safe and healthy holiday season. Come Saturday, there won’t be live music, gift bags, or a special turkey dinner with all the fixings. Just the same long line of hungry people.

The Down Low: While all dining experiences thrill me in some way, this is one situation that instead moves me to tears. The Preble Street Resource Center is serving more people than ever with a machine-like efficient operation that is the soup kitchen, averaging over 1,000 meals per day. The number of people served at the organaztion’s food pantry (a resource for people who have housing, but are still in need of sustenence and other assistance) has more than doubled. McKean states, "In April of 2010, the number of men, women and children served was 2,750, increasing to 4,200 in April of this year."

So, if you can’t make a large cash donation, please reach in your pocket and maybe you’ll find just enough for a pair of new gloves.

For more information about how to donate or volunteer at the Preble Street Resource Center, call 775-0026. Also, check out the unique sound of The Peterson Project on Facebook, or at www.petersonproject.net.

Natalie Ladd is a columnist for the Portland Daily Sun. She has over 30 continuous years of corporate and fine-dining experience in all front-of-the-house management, hourly and under-the-table positions. She can be reached at natalie@portlanddailysun.me.

Dyer Elementary School helps feed the hungry

Students at Dyer Elementary School in South Portland are helping to feed needy families at the Preble Street Resource Center this holiday season by "stuffing the bus."

Students have dropped off nonperishable food donations for the last few weeks into a box shaped like a school bus located in the lobby of the school. Big Hits Y100.9 DJ Chuck Igo stopped by in a real school bus on Monday, Nov. 19 to pick up the donations and bring them over to Preble Street in Portland.

The food donation effort is part of the radio station’s "Stuff the Big Bus" food drive. Igo drove to area schools in South Portland, Cape Elizabeth, Portland and Scarborough to collect donations. Then, on the following two days, the bus was parked in local grocery stores where customers could drop off cash and nonperishable food donations.

The food drive at Dyer School was organized by the fifth-grade leadership team and physical education teacher Dianne Kazilonis. The students will continue to work throughout the year on leadership activities, which include collecting recycled materials for the building, assisting younger students in art class projects and helping at lunchtime in the school cafeteria.

The Universal Notebook: Eat, drink and feel guilty

When I go to the supermarket these days (and that’s most days), I often find myself thinking, "How in the world can young families afford to put food on the table?" It seems to me that a typical trip to the market used to cost me $20 to $30. Now I’m spending about $50 a pop, about the same amount it costs to fill up the gas tank.

I feel incredibly lucky to be able to eat pretty much what I want, but with the cost of gas and widespread drought driving up food prices many people cannot. I say "lucky," because that’s all it is – luck. The U.S. economy is still struggling to recover from the 2008 financial meltdown and most of us are just one injury, illness, job loss, divorce or bad investment away from hard times.

The Yarmouth Community Food Pantry, which operates out of the basement of First Parish Church, was serving 11 families in 2006. Last year, it served 73. And no, Gov. LePage, we are not talking about deadbeats and welfare cheats. The people being helped are mostly working people who just aren’t paid a living wage.

The members and friends of First Parish try to get in the habit of purchasing one item for the food pantry every time we go grocery shopping. I signed up to buy tuna fish, and I did pretty well for the first few months. But now I’m so far in arrears that I must owe the pantry a whole bluefin tuna.

My friend and fellow congregant Barbara Horton buttonholed me before church a few weeks ago and asked me in her charming but emphatic way to devote one of my columns to the problem of hunger.

"This past winter," Barbara explained, "I learned that Maine is No. 1 in New England and No. 2 or No. 6 in the nation, depending on whose report one reads, for food insecurity. I was shocked and saddened."

So Barbara set a goal for herself of helping to publicize the issue, confident that "once the people of Maine learn the extent of the problem, they will want to help their hungry neighbors."

To that end, Barbara and some of her Sunset Point Road neighbors have organized a giant yard sale on Saturday, Sept. 15, from 9 a.m.-1 p.m. (rain date Sunday, Sept. 16), the proceeds to benefit Good Shepherd Food Bank. Good Shepherd delivers food to 36,000 people weekly through some 600 church and civic organizations.

How bad is the problem of hunger in Maine? Mark Swann, Donna Yellen and Elena Schmidt, all of whom work on the front line of poverty at Preble Street Resource Center in Portland, contributed an article to the Winter/Spring 2011 issue of the Maine Policy Review on "Hunger in Maine." They noted that "45 percent of Maine school children are eligible to receive a free or reduced lunch."

The fact that an estimated 69,000 Maine children aren’t sure when their next meal will be is what really bothered Barbara.

Preble Street itself provides a thousand meals a day in its soup kitchen and groceries to 150 families a week. Swann, Yellen and Schmidt reported that "in 1940 there was one food pantry in southern Maine. … Today there are 80." And there are as many as 450 food pantries statewide. We may be a hungry state, but it’s not as though a lot of good folks aren’t trying to feed their friends and neighbors.

If you go into Portland on a Friday or Saturday evening, however, it’s hard to believe we’re still in recession or that anyone could be going hungry. The lines waiting to get into trendy bistros are almost as long as the lines outside the soup kitchen.

Right now we have an army of social service agencies and volunteers battling hunger with food pantries, soup kitchens, food drives and yard sales, but it seems to me that if we were really serious about solving the problem of hunger in Maine we could do it easily. Add a small sales tax to restaurant meals and I bet we’d generate enough money to feed the hungry and those of us who are overfed might feel a little better about indulging our appetites and our pocketbooks.

Feds: Maine Owes $13 Million for Medicaid and Food Program Mistakes

It’s a double-whammy for Maine’s Department of Health and Human Services. The department overpaid food stamp benefits to about 58,000 households for four months last year. The department also incorrectly calculated Medicaid claims, according to the federal government, and both of those mistakes add up to a tab of mroe than $13 million owed to Washington. 

The cost of the food stamp error? About $4 million. The Medicaid reimbursement error? Just over $9 million. The reaction from the state?

"We don’t like to have this happen. We’re not a faceless bureaucracy," says Dale Denno, the director of the state’s Office of Family Independence. He says the mistake happened when the federal government – the source of all food stamp funding – reduced a portion of benefits last year.

Before the state can implement the new benefit level, it has to make its own rule change. Denno says a few months in, the department discovered they missed a formality, and the result was spending millions of dollars of federal money that wasn’t theirs.

"So it’s not within the discretion of the state of Maine to say, ‘Do we recover or do we not recover? It’s federal money. It’s their decision," Denno says.

Approximately 58,000 households received $20 to $80 dollars in extra benefits. Denno says DHHS will retrieve the money by reducing benefits by 10 percent for the next few months. That’s a seemingly small amount – say, $20 a month for a household that gets $200 in benefits.

But Donna Yellen, the director of the Maine Hunger Initiative, says every dollar matters. "Reducing these benefits by 10 percent or any amount is huge, because the cost of food is so high right now and the struggles that people are having – especially who are elderly and disabled – to make ends meet, they use every food stamp that they can."

The state’s Dale Denno says he understands the hardship and says he’s hopeful the government may forgive some of the burden.

"It’s the 11th hour to be sure, because we plan to send out letters tomorrow that would tell people, ‘Here’s how much you owe, and here’s how we plan to recover it," Denno says. "So we have had a very active dialogue with the Food and Nutrition Service yesterday and today to make sure this is, in fact, what they want us to do."

Even if the federal government relieves some of this debt, it still leaves over $9 million owed in Medicaid claims. That’s due to calculating errors between 2005 and 2009 that were discovered during an audit by the Inspector General’s Office.

Office of MaineCare Services Director Stephanie Nadeau attributes the mistake to a complicated system where reimbursement rates often shifted quarterly. "We’re looking for CMS guidance on how to fix our system, how do we need to build our system to make sure we’re doing this correctly in the future."

Nadeau says the department is talking to the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services to explore repayment options, and that they may need permission from the Legislature to access money to pay the government back.

Hunger on the Rise in Maine as Congress Considers Food Program Cuts

Hunger is on the rise in Maine. Over 200,000 Mainers are unsure where their next meal is coming from–the sixth-highest hunger rate in the nation, federal statistics indicate. In Portland today, USDA Under Secretary Kevin Concannon, Mayor Michael Brennan, and hunger advocates held a press conference to draw attention to the problem–and to the concern that benefits for the hungry will be slashed in the new farm bill now before Congress.

First, the good news. A federal nutrition program that provides summer meals to kids will not be cut under the farm bill, and there’s funding ready for the taking. The bad news? "Summertime is the time of year in which a Maine child is much more likely to go hungry," says USDA Under Secretary Kevin Concannon.

Concannon says during the school year, 21 million children across the country get free or reduced price lunches. In the summer, that number dips to just 3 million because of a lack of access. "We’re reaching out to any not-for-profit organizations, any of the religious groups, any of the municipal organizations, to help us on summer feeding," he says. "It is the biggest single gap we have right now."

While summer food programs for kids may be underused, food pantries and soup kitchens are not. Take Preble Street Resource Center, a Portland-based organization that serves the homeless and hungry. Last April, they served a milestone 1,000 meals in one day. Now, that number is standard. This past June, they served 1,200 meals every day.

Preble Street’s Donna Yellen says it follows the trend of recent years. She says in 2010 the number of people served by southern Maine food pantries jumped 42 percent. In 2012? "We are just starting to collect new data for that, and so far it’s looking like it has risen another, on average, 20 percent."

Despite the rise in hunger, Yellen does see a solution: "The food pantries do great work throughout our communities in Maine, and they’re doing the best they can. But the true answer to hunger is having those food supplement benefits to be able to go feed your child at home."

Those food benefits she’s talking about are food stamps, or SNAP–the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. But Yellen and others, like USDA Under Secretary Kevin Concannon, are worried the program will be weakened under a farm bill being considered by Congress.

Concannon says one group that could suffer from cuts are seniors "who may have worked all their life, who may have saved a modest amount of money. They would be found ineligible if they had more than $5,000, for example, in a bank account or in an asset–a vehicle. And we worry about that in places like Maine."

U.S. House Republicans who support the cuts say they’re needed to close loopholes and get food stamp spending under control. But Concannon says those who use SNAP help spur the economy by spending their assistance in grocery stores and farmers markets.

There are potential health benefit as well–just ask Dee Clarke. Clarke has a job, but says her paycheck isn’t enough to cover food bills. She says she used to get relief from a local food pantry, but affording enough healthy food was out of reach. "You know, pasta and cheese is really fattening, but it’s also very cheap," she says.

Clarke struggled with weight and high blood pressure. Then, about a year ago, she realized she qualified for food stamps. She says it’s made a huge difference in her health. "I’ve lost a significant amount of weight, and I don’t take blood pressure medicine anymore," she says.

Patty Wight: "And you owe that to this program?

Dee Clarke: "Absolutely–being able to access healthy food."

The U.S. Senate passed a more moderate version of the farm bill last month, which Under Secretary Concannon supports. It’s unclear when the House of Representatives will take up its version of the farm bill. Both Maine Reps. Chellie Pingree and Mike Michaud say they do not support gutting the food stamp program.

USDA under secretary touts food programs in Portland, asks Congress to resist cuts

PORTLAND, Maine – A top U.S. Department of Agriculture official on Wednesday morning touted local summer lunch programs for schoolchildren and urged Congress to resist proposed cuts to federal food subsidy programs.

Kevin Concannon – former commissioner of the Maine Department of Human Services and current USDA under secretary for food, nutrition and consumer services – was joined during a news conference by Preble Street Maine Hunger Initiative Director Donna Yellen, AARP Maine State President Carol Kontos and Portland Mayor Michael Brennan.

Also speaking Wednesday were individuals who benefited from federal nutrition programs firsthand, including Riverton Park summer lunch site coordinator John Ochira, and working mothers and food supplement program beneficiaries Dee Clarke and Marguerite Brocard.

The Stone Street playground site was chosen for the event because it is one of 58 summer meal sites in Cumberland County. Yellen’s Maine Hunger Initiative supports 24 of those sites, including 12 new ones opened this summer as health officials emphasize the importance of filling the seasonal void left in the diets of children who no longer have daily access to school cafeterias.

Ochira said he serves an average of 90 children each day at his Riverton site, one of the most populated summer lunch programs in the city.

“As a site supervisor, I see so many smiles, so many happy parents and so many well-fed kids as a result of the summer lunch program,” Ochira said.

Wednesday’s event was held in an effort to draw attention to the diversity of people who benefit from federal food aid, such as the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program, or SNAP. Brocard and Clarke each said she relies on the federal supplements to buy healthy groceries for their homes.

Both have held steady jobs in southern Maine, but each said her weekly paycheck wasn’t enough to cover fresh fruit and vegetables. Clarke said that if Congress doesn’t invest in healthy eating programs now for those who can’t afford to finance their own nutritional needs, taxpayers likely will have to pay for more expensive health care in the future.

“It’s more and more difficult to prevent illness, disabilities and early death when access to nutritious food and healthy meals is limited,” she told reporters.

Kontos said 7 percent of Mainers older than 50 “are threatened by hunger.”

Speakers on Wednesday used the variety of SNAP and other federal nutrition program beneficiaries to illustrate why they believe cuts to the programs included in the U.S. Farm Bill currently making its way through Congress are dangerous. The U.S. House is considering a bill that includes $16.5 billion in cuts to SNAP, formerly known as the federal food stamps program.

“We have grave concerns about the Farm Bill and proposals to weaken the food supplement programs and reduce access to nutritious food,” Yellen told reporters Wednesday.

She said that, in contrast to the cuts, if Congress increased funding for food supplement programs by 10 percent, Maine could cut its “food insecure” population from 200,000 to 100,000. A 41 percent increase in funding for the programs, she argued, would wipe out hunger in Maine completely, as measured by numbers of people considered “food insecure.”

Portland’s homeless front: More people than ever seek shelter

PORTLAND – More than 400 people on average sought overnight shelter in the city last month – the highest number since the city began keeping records in 1987.

Last year, the city started using the Preble Street Resource Center as an emergency overflow location for an additional 75 people. But now the numbers are overwhelming that location, forcing the city to open up its General Assistance office on Lancaster Street, where people are sleeping in chairs.

The GA office, which can hold 50 people, was used as overnight shelter for eight to 12 people nearly every day last week. About 22 people used it Monday, and seven people were there as of 10 p.m. Tuesday.

"I’m disturbed by the trend," Mayor Michael Brennan said. "It’s just unacceptable to have people sitting up in chairs in an office all night because we have no place for them to sleep."

Officials attribute the rise mostly to the loss of the city’s Homelessness Prevention, Rapid Re-Housing Program, which ran out of federal funding last November.

The two-year program, funded by $876,000 from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, paid for seven full-time employees and provided rental assistance and support services.

The spike in homelessness is also affecting the Preble Street soup kitchen and food pantry. Last year, they reached a milestone by serving 1,000 meals on one day in April. This past April, the kitchen served an average of 1,000 meals a day, according to Donna Yellen, a social worker and director of advocacy for the Maine Hunger Initiative at Preble Street Resource Center.

This month the kitchen is serving an average of 1,200 meals a day, said Yellen.

"We know numbers increase during the summer," Yellen said. "But this summer is very unusual and one we’re worried about."

The shelter numbers jumped this summer, too. Before June, an average of 357 people sought shelter in Portland.

In June, an average of 411 people sought overnight shelter – an increase of 57 people over June 2011. It’s the first time the average has exceeded 400 people in the 25 years of recording keeping.

"It’s certainly a troubling statistic," said Doug Gardner, director of the city’s Health and Human Services department "It’s not a milestone we’re particularly pleased with."

Portland has had a policy of not turning away anyone seeking shelter since 1987, when then-City Manager Bob Ganley instituted the rule after a homeless encampment sprang up at City Hall to protest the closure of a shelter.

A recent staff analysis found that only one-third of Portland’s homeless are from Portland, while one-third are from out of state and one-third are from other Maine towns.

"Portland has always been a hospitable and compassionate city, and I think we want to continue to move in that direction," Brennan said. "Regardless of where people come from, we want to do the best we can to find housing, job opportunities and allow people to live in Portland as a fully participating member of the community."

The city currently operates two shelters – the Oxford Street Shelter and the Family Shelter – while nonprofit groups, like Preble Street Resource Center, operate several others that focus on women, youths and those with substance abuse problems.

The city-run Oxford Street Shelter has 129 beds but can accommodate an additional 25 people on mats. When that shelter is full, the overflow location opens at the Preble Street Resource Center for up to 75 men, who sleep on mats.

On Tuesday, scores of people were milling around a fenced-in courtyard on Oxford Street, waiting for the shelter to open.

A 42-year-old woman named Laura said she arrives at 4 p.m., even though the shelter doesn’t open until 6 p.m., to make sure she gets a bed. "I make sure I get checked in early," said Laura, who has been staying a the shelter for the last eight months.

"It’s so overcrowded now," said 34-year-old Joseph Borowy, who has stayed at the shelter on and off for 13 years in between jobs and apartments.

Tim Frary, a 44-year-old man from New York who came to Portland on a job transfer in October, also comes to the shelter early. When Frary began telling a reporter his secrets to getting in the shelter early, 41-year-old Angel Velez warned him to stop because it would become even harder to get a bed.

"This place fills up in 15 minutes," Velez said.

Becky McLucas, who has lived on the streets of Portland 15 years, said she has never seen so many people seeking shelter. "This is at its worst," the 44-year-old said. "It has doubled in size."

The city-run Family Shelter at 54-56 Chestnut St. offers 84 beds in an apartment-style setup to families with children under the age of 18. Last week there was such a demand there that the city put up seven families in hotels, Gardner said.

The increase in homelessness is not limited to a specific group, Gardner said. Single moms, adult men and teenagers are all affected.

In addition to losing the federal funding, Gardner said the recent spike is also the result of the poor economy and the fact that families will hang on to housing until the end of school and then move into the city to seek better opportunities.

The city’s Homelessness Prevention, Rapid Re-Housing Program stably housed 1,306 people over the last two years, according to a report form the University of New England. It helped 72 individuals who had previously spent more than 500 nights at a shelter. Each received an average monthly benefit of $3,880 for an average of eight months.

It also provided assistance to 360 households, consisting of 997 individuals. Each household received an average of $1,831 in rental support and $460 in utility support over a two-month period on average.

For those who were previously homeless, the program freed up 75,730 bed nights at area shelters by providing about $600 a month in rental assistance security deposits for an average of four months, bridging the waiting period for long-term housing vouchers.

The program ran out of funding in November. But Gardner said the city is working with other area shelters to duplicate the case management and support services that were effective under the HPRP.

"The recidivism of less than 5 percent for folks coming out of the shelter was just amazing and it speaks to the power of good social work and case management and making sure folks are evaluated on a case-by-case basis," he said.

In the short term, however, the city is looking for space to open another overflow shelter. Gardner said the city is considering six locations but declined to name them.

Yellen said homelessness is increasing across the country, posing a major challenge.

"It’s the kind of thing that has to be a community response," she said. "We’re all in this together."

 

Staff Writer Randy Billings can be contacted at 791-6346, rbillings@mainetoday.com or on Twitter: @randybillings.