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Maine's private low-barrier homeless shelters are close to financial breaking point

The Hope House Health and Living Center on Corporate Drive in Bangor.
Linda Coan O'Kresik
The Hope House Health and Living Center on Corporate Drive in Bangor. 

Maine's six privately-run low barrier homeless shelters say they're struggling to stay afloat, and they told state lawmakers Tuesday that they need financial help to stay open.

The financial difficulties come at a time when homelessness has risen dramatically in Maine, and several cities are grappling with large encampments.

Collectively, the six low-barrier shelters, which include the Bangor Area Homeless Shelter and Hope House in Bangor, the Mid-Maine Homeless Shelter in Waterville, and Milestone Recovery, Elena's Way Wellness Shelter and Florence House in Portland, are operating with an annual deficit of $4.1 million.

Hope House, Maine's second largest low-barrier shelter, will close next year if it can't find a new partner to patch a nearly $800,000 funding shortfall.

"It will devastating for this state — it really will — if Hope House closes next fall, as the plan is in place," Mark Swann, executive director of Preble Street, told members of the Legislature's Housing Committee on Tuesday. "And I have to say without any long term solutions, Elena's Way is not going to be far behind."

Preble Street runs Elena's Way, which has a $1.4 million deficit, as well as Florence House, running at a $750,000 budget deficit.

"We just can't do it under the current funding model," said Lori Dwyer, president and CEO of Penobscot Community Health Care, which runs Hope House in Bangor. "Our deficits are lower, because we are able to do more medical billing than other organizations, but they're still really significant and just something we can't sustain going into the future."

Dwyer and others said they're constantly trying to fundraise for the shelters, and some have pursued new services as a way to raise more operating funds. Swann, for example, said Elena's Way became a licensed mental health provider specifically so it bill for Medicaid.

"These were very well-intended efforts on both parts, Preble Street and the [Maine Department of Health and Human Services], but they have amounted to very, very little in the way of funds," he said. "Medicaid funding is a square peg, and low-barrier shelters are a round hole."

The shelters have also increasingly become more difficult, and expensive, to run in recent years.

Low-barrier shelters don't require background checks or sobriety, and many occupants bring untreated mental health and substance use disorder, trauma and complex medical conditions with them to the shelter, Dwyer said.

"You need highly trained staff, much more so than even four or five years ago, highly trained staff who can address a whole spectrum of challenges that people bring into the milieu when they come into a shelter," she said.

And because there aren't enough detox beds, transitional housing and affordable housing options in Maine, Dwyer said unhoused people are staying longer in shelters. Before the pandemic, the average shelter stay was about 20-to-40 days. Now, she said some clients are staying for three months or longer.

The Legislature authorized a statewide "Housing First" program earlier this year, which will create housing with support services for chronically unsheltered people.

But it will take years for those properties to be built, and Swann and Dwyer said low-barrier shelters like theirs are filling the gap for chronically unhoused people who have been sleeping in encampments outside.

Meanwhile, housing and community advocates said the city of Portland is seeing some encouraging signs in its efforts to convince unhoused people living in the encampments to take one of the 120 beds that have recently opened at the Homeless Services Center.

Since last Thursday, 34 people from Portland's largest encampment at Harbor View Memorial Park under the Casco Bay Bridge have accepted a spot at the municipal-run shelter, a city spokesperson told Maine Public Tuesday.

Swann, whose street outreach staff have been regularly working in the encampments, said the number of recent shelter placements is a good sign.

"It's all about working with an individual, making an assessment, working through misunderstandings about the Homeless Services Center, working in the gray area," he said. "One of the challenges for the city is it is a city; it's a bureaucracy. They don't work in the gray that well. We've spent months, many of us, trying to work with the city to try to play in the gray more."

The city is working with a local animal shelter to make accommodations for unhoused people with pets who want to utilize the shelter. Pets are not typically allowed at the Homeless Services Center.