For over a decade, Diane, a beautiful, elderly woman in her 70’s, sat in a folding chair outside our soup kitchen waiting for her son to pick her up and take her home. Every effort to talk with her, offer her housing, help her in anyway, was met with a gentle and soft response, "I’m fine, dear, don’t worry about me. My son is coming to pick me up on Monday." This was her response for more than 10 years. She suffered from schizophrenia with entrenched delusions, and would occasionally slip into catatonic states. Tragically, during the years this lovely woman languished in the shelters, she received no medical treatment and died of breast cancer. Diane’s son never picked her up. And she never made it home.
I’ve been the Executive Director of Preble Street for 24 years. While I’m blessed to have such a great job, the hardest part, by far, is not knowing whether we’ll be able to serve everyone who comes to our doors, hungry and homeless, cold and alone, scared to death. And can you even imagine how terrifying these past several weeks have been, with the record snow and cold, for those out on the streets? Think of those nights when you’ve dreaded just walking from the office where you work to your car. How brutally cold those 8 minutes were until your car warmed up. And how happy you were to finally get to your warm and comfortable home for the night. Sadly, we have brothers and sisters who have no home to get to, nowhere to be warm and safe.
Emergency shelters have to be there for these people. We simply have to. It is a matter of life and death. Preble Street has to be there for them. The city’s Oxford Street Shelter and the 41 other shelters around Maine have to be there. For those of us trying to keep these shelters up and running, these questions about shelter funding and General Assistance are not political issues, or newspaper headlines. They are about real people who are suffering, and the limited and humble ways in which we can help them. Again, it is a matter of life and death – that’s what we think about, that’s what those of us who run shelters worry about.
We know that no one wakes up one day and decides they want to be homeless. No one wakes up one day and decides they want to be mentally ill. Being homeless in Portland at the Oxford Street Shelter means sleeping on a thin mat on the floor, clutching all your belongings, inches away on both sides from strangers. That’s if you’re lucky enough to get one of the mats here.
One night earlier this month, 282 people showed up for one of the 142 mats available here. 282 people, and only 142 mats. So 75 of those 282 people had to walk over to Preble Street’s soup kitchen and sleep on the floor there. Another 68 people had to sit up in chairs all night at city offices. A few people waited here for a mat to open up, with one person waiting 11 hours to lay down his head for the two hours before the shelter woke everyone up and they had to leave for the day.
Who wants this? Who chooses this? And is someone really getting away with something by getting this mat to sleep on? How on God’s green earth could offering this meager service be considered "too generous?"
Two years ago, Preble Street and the city started a long-stayer initiative to try to focus more attention and resources on the 30 people who stayed at Oxford Street Shelter the longest. I don’t know if they were the same 30 that DHHS looked at in their audit, but it’s certainly a very very comparable group. All long-stayers. Of those 30, all 30-100% -had serious and persistent mental illnesses. Untreated mental illnesses, like Diane had. It may well be that some of them had money in the bank. But if so, I’m certain that they didn’t even know they had money, or because of the severity of their psychosis, they were unwilling or unable to use any of it.
They were and are staying at these scary, overcrowded shelters or languishing on the streets, because of their tragic mental illnesses. Not to save a few bucks. That is ridiculous to even suggest.
Anyone who lives or works or visits Portland knows exactly what I mean. These are the same people who wander our city streets, talking to themselves, psychotic, delusional and paranoid. Portlanders see them every day in Monument Square, at the ferry terminal, in Deering Oaks Park.
The mental health system is seriously broken. And that is not a new development that can or should be blamed on the current administration. This system has been unraveling for decades. The simple fact is that the shelters are overflowing with people who absolutely should not be there. But not because they have money. They shouldn’t be there because it is inhumane that our mental health system is unavailable and inaccessible to them.
Like we’ve seen with our jails, the shelters have become de facto psychiatric institutions. But without the funding, the expertise, and the clinical skills needed to treat people. We just do our best to keep people safe and alive.
And emergency shelters do that with whatever tools are available to us, with whatever funding we can scrape together. Shelter directors’ first worry, as I’ve described, is their clients’ safety. Shelter directors’ second worry, without question, is having the funds needed to stay open. Five agencies here in Portlandhave stopped running shelters over the last decade or so, because of lack of funding: Catholic Charities, Salvation Army, YWCA, Youth Alternatives and Ingraham. Good organizations, but no money to run their shelters. Where did all their clients go? Right here, to the Oxford Street Shelter, that’s where.
Having said that, I agree with the premise that General Assistance is the wrong funding mechanism for emergency shelters. It’s meant for individuals in the form of vouchers for food and rent. That’s what it’s for, not to run shelters. But it’s one of the only funding streams there is. So let’s throw it out, but only if we’ve made damned sure we have a sufficient replacement for it.
Funding for emergency shelters in this state hasn’t been thoughtfully discussed or debated by the state of Maine for over 25 years.
A grand total of $380,000 in state general funds goes to support the 42 shelters spread throughout Maine. $380,000 to support 42 shelters, and that’s even down from $500,000 when the state first made a commitment to fund shelters in 1987. In addition to that, for the past 20 or so years, MaineHousing has–at its discretion–committed approximately $2.4 million in HOME Funds to support the shelters. Thank God MaineHousing has done that. But that’s not the right funding mechanism either. It’s not why the HOME Fund was established in the first place. It’s discretionary, so it can go away quickly. And the HOME Fund, itself, often becomes a political football, so it is vulnerable.
And it’s not enough, which is why we have Portland and Bangor using General Assistance to keep the doors of their shelters open, because it is one of the very very few funding sources available to them.
So, GA is not the right source of funds. The HOME Fund is not the right source of funds. And $380,000 from the general fund is nowhere near enough to support 42 shelters around the state.
What can we do?
I propose that, in a thoughtful way, we transition shelter funding away from these funds and establish a meaningful and sufficient state fund to support Maine’s emergency shelters. Let’s call it the State of Maine Compassion Fund. How about that?
The state needs to acknowledge the importance of emergency shelters as a crucial, absolutely crucial, component of the safety net and fund them accordingly. The State of Maine Compassion Fund can do that. Now is the time to start over. We owe it to those counting on us to do this right.
And let’s also do a better job-all of us-at connecting the dots between untreated mental illness and the growing number of people at our shelters. Let’s have a real conversation about that. Is this how we as a state, as a community, want to treat people with debilitating mental illness?
We have to stop pointing fingers at one another. Stop saying what doesn’t work, or what’s wrong with the current system. These issues are complicated. Poverty, mental illness and homelessness are complex, but let’s figure out good public policy to help keep people safe and warm, off the streets and alive. Please let’s do that.