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Homelessness in the Midcoast Strains Resources

Jay Field
Samantha Buchanan watches as her kids work on computers in the resource room at Hospitality House.

Homelessness in Maine dropped 13 percent over the past year, according to a recent annual report from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. But the point-in-time survey, where data are collected on single nights each winter, has also fluctuated dramatically over the past five years. Two years ago, the same report showed a 26 percent jump in homelessness in Maine.

And despite recent declines, there are now roughly the same number of homeless people in the state as their were in 2010.

The situation is especially tough right now on the midcoast, where the Knox County Homeless Coalition has served more than 900 homeless men, women and children over the past 22 months.

Samantha Buchanan, her three year old son and four year old daughter following close behind, opens the door and waves to the driver of the school bus that's just rolled up.

The doors of the parked bus swing open. Buchanan's oldest, an energetic, blond-haired 7 year old boy, jumps out and sprints for home through a driving rain.

Parents and kids are reuniting in this same way, at roughly the same time, on city streets, suburban cul de sacs and rural country roads across Maine. But this homecoming is different. Samantha Buchanan and her kids don't own or rent the renovated farmhouse on a hill in Rockport. It's a homeless shelter, a place called Hospitality House.

"We have been here since June 2nd," Buchanan says.

A year before that, Buchanan and her partner, the father of her kids, bought a 210 year-old house and planned to begin fixing it up.

"Turned out that, you know, the only real fixing would be to just clear the home off the property and put a new one there," Buchanan says. "So that really put us in the hole."

As winter approached, Buchanan was working 60 hours a week for $9 an hour, managing a Dunkin' Donuts. Her partner was lobstering. The family was still living in the house, but couldn't afford to heat it.

"It wasn't liveable," Buchanan says. "So we stayed with my mom for awhile, working and still, but just, it was really really hard to get by and save up for another place to live."

The family began working with the Knox County Homeless Coalition, which found space at Hospitality House for Samantha and the kids.

"We can only shelter between 30 to 35 people, at any given time, between this facility and our hotel rooms," says Stephanie Pimm. She used to run her own business, turning around and rebranding struggling companies.

Her experience came in handy, when some people on the midcoast approached her, shortly after she moved to Maine two years ago, and asked her take over the homeless coalition. Under her leadership, the coalition has grown from a small start up to an agency with a $1.4 million dollar budget and 21 full-time staffers.

Stephanie Pimm: "Right now, we have about 300 on our caseload. So we can only shelter maybe 20 percent of the people we are helping. That's why we want to expand shelter capacity."
Jay Field: "So of that 300, they're all homeless?" SP: "Yeah." JF: "Wow." SP: "Wow is right."

Primm says the need for more shelter isn't leveling off. If anything, she says, it's growing.

"There're so many people that are a day away from being tipped over that edge," Primm says. "A landlord sold a house out from under them and then they couldn't find another place to do. They're homeless. Somebody got sick and had a $25,000 bill. They're homeless. And if you think about how many people are making $8 or $9 or $10 dollars an hour around here, in the midcoast, and how seasonal some of the work is, it's just hard."

The midcoast, notes Pimm, also lacks enough affordable housing. The inventory in the area is aging and often can't pass muster with the Maine State Housing Authority or local code enforcement. Many clients on the coalition's caseload, including Samantha Buchanan and her kids, have vouchers for subsidized housing, but haven't been able find a place they can afford.

"This Thankgiving will be the first holiday that they've not been home for," Pimm says.

Instead, Buchanan and the kids will share Thanksgiving dinner with other families at Hospitality House. Despite the recent struggles, the near future looks better than it did a few months ago. Buchanan became a certified nurses assistant this fall and has been hired by Maine Health, where she'll make more than Dunkin Donuts was able to pay her. The family also has a Section 8 housing voucher. It expires in early December, but Buchanan thinks she'll be able to get it extended.