Mayoral candidates confront issue of homelessness

Posted Wednesday, October 26, 2011 in News

Mayoral candidates confront issue of homelessness

Members of the HOME team interact with homeless in Portland's Congress Square.  (photo credit: Shawn Patrick Ouellette)

by Marian McCue

PORTLAND -- One of the most frequent questions Jed Rathband hears as he campaigns for Mayor of Portland is what would he do about the homeless situation in the city. Rathband appeared with most of the other candidates at a recent forum organized by the Homeless Voices for Justice, an activist group affiliated with the Preble Street Resource Center. The Center provides meals and services to homeless and low-income people in the city.

After breakfast at the Center on Oct. 12, more than 30 clients of Preble Street remained in the lunchroom to question some of the 15 candidates who want to be the city’s first popularly elected Mayor in over 80 years. The election will be held Nov. 8.

In the past few months, Portland has seen a dramatic increase in homelessness, with the city’s shelters reporting overflow numbers nearly every night. Doug Gardner, director of the city’s Department of Health and Human Services, said in an interview last week there has been a significant increase in those seeking shelter in the last 18 months or so, but the situation has gotten to record levels in the last six to eight weeks. And the outlook may only get worse as the federal government moves to enforce regulations that will prevent some substance abuse facilities from getting Medicaid reimbursement unless they limit the number of beds.

In recent weeks, on most nights, the city’s Oxford Street Shelter is full and the overflow is sent to Preble Street to sleep on cots. And each day, there are around 200 people who show up for every meal at Preble Street.

Gardner said that while substance abuse and addiction have always been a factor for many homeless people, the recent economic collapse means there simply aren’t jobs for people who are able to work.

“You used to see people who would use the shelter for a time when they couldn’t find work, but then they’d find something at least for a while,” said Gardner. “We see those people all the time now because the jobs just aren’t there.”

The city recently launched a project called the “Home Team” which interacts with people who out on the street drunk or on drugs and moves them to safety to avoid having an interaction with police. Gardner says that has helped the situation, he says.

Not all of the mayoral candidates feel that the Home Team project is really solving the problem of getting addicts into treatment.

“It only moves the problem,” said Christopher Vail, a firefighter making his first bid for elective office.

Gardner acknowledges that there are many components to homelessness, and that the lack of jobs has worsened the problem.

 “It’s a complex issue and there are many things at play,” Gardner said. According to media reports, city officials said last summer that shelter usage was up 12 percent from July 2010 to July 2011.

General assistance: Lining up in lawn chairs

The strain on the city’s General Asstance Program was raised by several people at the Preble Street forum. Many said the program is difficult to access, with scores of people waiting in line each morning to get an appointment for the vouchers which could help them pay for rent or food.

 “People are out there in lawn chairs early in the morning waiting to get help from the city,” observed one man.

Donna Yellen, who has worked in consumer advocacy at Preble Street for 17 years, said in a later interview that the pressure on General Assistance has skyrocketed just in the last year.

“When I come in to Preble Street early in the morning, there are 50 or 60 people waiting out there to get help from the city,” said Yellen. She said that because people have to wait in line for many hours at the city’s General Assistance office, they don’t have time to wait in line for breakfast at Preble Street.

GA is an assistance program funded by both the state and city. Under state law, communities must provide General Assistance for basic needs such as rent and food, and the aid comes in the form of vouchers rather than cash. To receive the vouchers, the applicants must demonstrate that they are completely without funds, and prove their level of income and what they have spent it on.

Crystal Davis, who attended the morning forum and has just gotten an apartment, questioned some of the policies of GA. She said it seemed to her that people suffering from addiction got first priority in aid from the city, resulting in other families not getting help.

“I want those people to get help but maybe the city could do a better job getting addicts to rehab so that the GA could be used for families,” said Davis. Several of the candidates agreed there was a need for more substance abuse programs.

A bleak outlook – more cuts in government funding

Several candidates pointed to the cutbacks in federal funds for housing support as an obstacle to helping the homeless.

Rathband told the Preble Street audience that in 30 years “the feds have cut housing subsidies by 30 percent” and that thousands of rental units had been destroyed.  He advocated a city ordinance that would limit the conversion of rental units into condominiums. But Rathband questioned whether the city’s current housing conversion ordinance, which charges a fee to developers when they remove rental housing, was effective in solving the housing problem.

Also citing the need for more federal funding was Michael Brennan, one of the apparent front-runners in the race who at least leads in the race for endorsements.

“We need funding for more permanent housing, more Section 8 vouchers,” said Brennan, adding that Logan Place and Florence House, a shelter plus permanent housing facility for women, had been a great asset to the city. 

David Marshall, a current city councilor, suggested that the city consider zoning changes and tax incentives to get developers to build affordable housing.

Ethan Strimling, who heads a non-profit agency that works on education and employment issues, told the audience “the best social program is a job.” He stressed that he wanted to have “metrics in place” to measure how the city is doing in responding to homelessness.

“At the end of my term, or two terms, I want to just see a few people here having lunch, rather than the 200 who just had lunch here,” said Strimling.

Jill Duson, a former Mayor and current city councilor, cited her own experience as the child of a mother on welfare who worked with other mothers to demand improvements to their housing. She said her mother had taken matters into her own hands to improve their situation.

Two of the candidates said that private resources should be used more effectively. Jodie Lapchick said that that homeowners who have extra space could be linked up with those needing temporary shelter. Hamza Haadoow said that money could be raised privately to help people buy their medications, since many are having to choose between food, medicine, and shelter.

The prospect of more budget cuts for social programs and GA looms in the next Legislative session. Yellen, of Preble Street, notes that advocates were successful in beating back some of the proposed cuts to the state’s social service budget in the last session of the Legislature, but more cuts are espected from Gov. Paul LePage in January.

In the last session, LePage initially proposed that people could only access General Assistance once a year, but he backed off that proposal after visiting Preble Street and speaking with members of the homeless group.

Doug Gardner expects that there will be attempts to alter General Assistance in the next session of the Legislature.

For many providers of mental health and substance abuse services, the issue has gotten even more complicated as the federal government is enforcing rules that will make it more difficult for some local substance abuse programs to receive Medicaid reimbursements for their clients.

A federal funding program which Maine had used to channel Medicaid reimbursement to housing and treatment providers, will be ended for those institutions that are deemed Medical facilities under government guidelines. Programs like Milestone and Serenity House will have to limit their facilities to a 16 bed level in order to remain eligible for Medicaid. These treatment centers are right now scrambling to find placement for their residents to keep their facilities at the required level.

As the cold weather threatens, the situation for the homeless in Portland looks bleak, with the prospects of cuts in government funding and the lack of jobs.

Jed Rathband told a story of a family he visited on Sherwood Street, where the business they ran was facing foreclosure, and they would no longer be able to pay for their housing.

“This family was preparing to be homeless,” said Rathband.

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