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The Pandemic Has Advocates Rethinking Maine's Homeless Shelters And Resource System

Robbie Feinberg
Maine Public

The COVID-19 pandemic has challenged all of Maine's congregate settings, including homeless shelters, which have had to reduce capacity.

Many advocates say they are concerned that needs could increase when court hearings on evictions can resume in August. So some service providers are hoping to reconfigure the state's shelter and homeless resource system in an effort to support residents — and get more housed — in the months ahead.

Becca Gildred unlocks the door to a tiny building in Rockport that has traditionally been used by her agency, the Knox County Homeless Coalition, as an education space for clients from across the Midcoast. But today, the building is being used for a different purpose, and stacks of cans reach close to the ceiling.

“Right now, it's warehousing extra food, because of trying to meet the need, from day one, of COVID,” Gildred says. “We did not stop. We merely just pivoted and worked quickly to address the increase in need of all the people we serve.”

The Knox County Homeless Coalition serves about 400 people across three coastal counties. It provides services such as transportation, food and housing, and it also operates a shelter for 22 people inside a big, green Victorian-style house nearby.

Executive Director Stephanie Primm says the clients here are often working families. But they face a lack of affordable housing in a region where real estate prices have skyrocketed, with the pandemic's economic effects only making things harder.

"One of the other things we're seeing is, if there were already tenuous shared living situations, where people were sharing space to save money, perhaps tenuous family relationships, but ‘OK, you can stay on my couch,’ or ‘you can use this extra space in the corner’ — when people were forced to stay home together, and there were already tenuous situations, we saw a lot of people getting kicked out of those situations," Primm says. "And we're anticipating, especially with what's going on with the rest of the country, with the spike, we're anticipating a significant increase in need over the next six months."

Credit Robbie Feinberg / Maine Public
Maine Public
People face a lack of affordable housing in a region where real estate prices have skyrocketed, with the pandemic's economic effects only making things harder.

Primm says that in Knox County, one strategy has been to work with the state to dramatically expand access to hotel rooms, creating more private space for families and individuals.

“We actually have a whole hotel leased,” Primm says. “In addition, we have scattered site hotel rooms. So we're covering, within an hour circumference of our agency, there are people everywhere.”

Elsewhere in the state, the need for more space for quarantining and isolation, and reduced shelter capacity due to social distancing, has led MaineHousing to work with local agencies to stand up emergency wellness shelters, from Portland to Lewiston and Presque Isle. Shawn Yardley is the CEO of Community Concepts, which operated the shelter at the Lewiston Armory. He says until it closed last week, it provided around-the-clock services for about 50 people each day who had few other places to turn.

But he fears that the situation could worsen in a few weeks when courts resume hearings, including those for evictions.

“A lot of people, if they find themselves situationally homeless, have family and friends, that can help a little bit,” Yardley says. “So they might not feel it immediately. But the people on the margins are really the bellwether. They're the ones that tell us where things are at. Because they exhaust their resources, they don't have any support...so I'm really, really concerned.”

"I think it's safe to say that overall, the demand has increased," says MaineHousing Director Dan Brennan. "And it just exacerbates the need to have a system in place that can then help support that."

Brennan says the state has already provided one-time rental paymentsto more than 6,000 people since the pandemic began. And Brennan says his agency is working with the state Department of Economic and Community Development to create a more robust rental assistance program going forward, and it aims to invest more resources to rapidly re-house individuals.

But beyond those immediate strategies, Maine's Statewide Homeless Council has asked the state for $60 million in federal CARES Act funds it has received, in hopes of reshaping the state's homeless resource system going forward.

Part of that strategy, Brennan says, would be to reimagine shelters. Instead of the typical crowded congregate spaces, he envisions a more regional approach, with smaller, scattered dwellings offering more space for clients to spread out.

“If we can move to a model, like we've had with the wellness shelters, where they're open 24-7, and they're contained, and they're able to provide care and nurturing to the individuals that are in those buildings, helping them get out into independent housing, that might make for a better approach than what we've been doing.”

Already, Portland's Preble Street is moving in that direction. Executive Director Mark Swann says after witnessing the success of the temporary wellness shelter inside USM's Sullivan Gym earlier this year, the organization is developing plans to reconfigure one of its buildings as a more wide-open shelter with services for clients.

“We're working on a redesign of this facility to open a 40-bed, 24-7, spread-out, trauma-informed, professionally run shelter,” Swann says. “And then I think Portland needs two or three more shelters, or I should say Greater Portland. We do need a regional approach for this issue.”

Beyond that, the Statewide Homeless Council is also calling for the state to put tens of millions of dollars toward building more affordable and supportive housing in the state. Advocates are hoping that with more housing and reconfigured shelters, families and homeless individuals can feel safer and get services more quickly, which can then help them get back on their feet.