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New initiative calls for an end to veteran homelessness in Maine by 2025

Willie Jefferson, 66, was looking for a fresh start after moving to Maine earlier this year. Preble Street helped him find a one-bedroom apartment in Gorham.
Nicole Ogrysko
Maine Public
Willie Jefferson, 66, was looking for a fresh start after moving to Maine earlier this year. Preble Street helped him find a one-bedroom apartment in Gorham.

It's a quiet afternoon inside Willie Jefferson's one bedroom apartment. The 66-year-old points to his neatly organized kitchen.

"I got everything to cook with, all kind of tools," he said. "I like doing stuff with my hands. Still got that feel."

Six months ago, Jefferson didn't have a kitchen full of tools to practice his cooking. He wasn't sure where he'd be. He had just moved to Maine after a divorce and the death of his brother. He was able to stay with his sister-in-law and his nephews when he first arrived here but said he wanted a place of his own to get back on his feet.

Aubine Ntibandetse, a veterans housing services caseworker with Preble Street, helped Jefferson find this one-bedroom apartment in Gorham.

"Anybody deserves housing, because it is a basic need," Ntibandetse said. "And so he came, we got him housed, and I feel like once you are housed, everything comes along. It gives you a sense of purpose."

For Jefferson, it took a few months before the reality of his new living situation kicked in.

"I said wait a minute, this really is my place. It was weird, you know?"

Jefferson left the Army more than 40 years ago and has trouble walking. He relies on Social Security benefits to pay his rent.

"The choices that I have to make now have got to be wise now," Jefferson said. "I'm not going to put myself in something that's not going to work. I don't want to live that way. I don't want to be like I'm feeling like I'm homeless. I've been there before. And now I have a chance. So I'm not going to blow this chance."

Social services providers estimate there are about 200 Maine veterans experiencing homelessness. That number has doubled in recent years, said Dan Hodgkins, senior director of social work for Preble Street.

Maine used to have about 25 veterans become unhoused each month, and it usually took about 90 days to find them a place to live, Hodgkins said. But things changed during the pandemic.

"What we found is that not necessarily more veterans were becoming homeless, but instead of taking 90 days to house people, it starting taking six months, nine months on average to house people," Hodgkins said.

An initiative that launched back in 2021 helped find housing for veterans more quickly. But Hodgkins says high rents and high demand for affordable apartments and shelter beds have again made it more difficult for veterans to find a stable place to live.

It's why later this week, 100 days before Veterans Day, Preble Street, the Department of Veterans Affairs in Maine and others will launch the "No Veteran Homeless" challenge. The initial goal, Hodgkins said, is to find housing for at least 100 veterans within 100 days.

But the group has a loftier target — to functionally end veteran homelessness in Maine by June 2025.

The group is calling on landlords with extra units to make them available to veterans. And Hodgkins said new resources will incentivize landlords and housing developers to make the leap.

All veterans will work with a caseworker to create a financial plan for paying their rent, either through vouchers, housing subsidies or their own income. Landlords who agree to lease veterans for a year or longer will receive a bonus payment of at least $1,000. Landlords will also have access to a risk mitigation fund, which Hodgkins said will reimburse landlords for any damage or unpaid rent that's not covered by a security deposit.

"The vast majority of these tenancies go really well," he said. "But just in case, we have this extra layer of protection for landlords."

There's a lot of pressure throughout Maine — especially in Portland and other urban centers — to find housing for a growing number of people who are living outside or in unstable conditions, Hodgkins said. But he believes momentum is on their side.

"Housing 200 people, that's a fair amount of work," he said. "But that's actually very possible when we're talking about housing 200 people throughout an entire state."

As for Willie Jefferson, he said he understands why some veterans might be hesitant to trust or accept the help. But he said he's happy to have a place of his own.

"It makes me so much stronger," Jefferson said. "I have a chance in life."

The No Homeless Veteran Challenge will launch Friday afternoon with an appearance from Veterans Affairs Secretary Denis McDonough at the University of Southern Maine's Hannaford Hall in Portland.