PORTLAND – For eight months, Ivelisse Castro spent her nights on a cot in a shelter while she saved her paychecks and waited to qualify for rental assistance.

Castro might have waited a lot longer without the help of an aggressive new team of caseworkers who are fighting homelessness in Maine’s largest city.

“They’re great,” said Castro, who moved into her one-bedroom downtown apartment in February. “Without them, I would still be at the shelter.”

Castro is one of more than 200 people, mostly in Portland, who were either moved out or kept out of shelters from December through March by the Homelessness Prevention and Rapid Re-housing Program, say city officials. The program has been so successful that it actually reduced homelessness in Portland in the midst of a deep recession, they said.

“We’ve gone nine weeks straight with lower numbers (at shelters), for the first time in a couple years,” said Bob Duranleau, director of Portland’s Department of Health and Human Services.

The program is part of a national two-year effort started with $1.5 billion from the $800 billion federal stimulus package passed last year.

“Fundamentally, the intention is that we don’t get a huge increase in homelessness because of the recession,” said Nan Roman, president of the National Alliance to End Homelessness.

Cities around the country started programs at the end of 2009, she said, and it’s too early to know what effect they are having on the number of homeless people nationally — about 600,000 in all.

The program in Portland and other cities reflects a national shift in attitudes toward preventing homelessness. Called “home first,” the approach focuses more resources on getting people out of shelters as a first step so they are better able to get and hold jobs or address problems such as mental illness and substance abuse.

“It’s not very revolutionary. People do better when they’re in housing than when they’re in shelters,” Roman said. “The faster we get them into housing, the better off they’re going to be.”

Portland’s Health and Human Services Department and Preble Street, a nonprofit social services agency, teamed up to lead the effort here with a total of $2.1 million over two years. The effort has cost $132,000 in the first four months, officials said.

Most of the people who have been helped so far, like Castro, moved out of Portland’s shelters after long stays. Some had been homeless for 10 years or more before moving into apartments, said Angela Havlin, a supervisor of the program.

Others who are getting help from the program live around Cumberland County, are on the verge of becoming homeless and need helping staying in their homes.

The program essentially works like a strike force, with nine case managers given the resources and latitude to do what’s necessary. They mostly help pay rent, security deposits and utility bills until a client gets a full-time job or a housing subsidy, or both.

They also help set up job interviews, file for unemployment benefits, negotiate rents with landlords and resolve daily problems such as balancing a checkbook or getting a faucet repaired.

And they stay in touch with the individuals, sometimes on a daily basis, long after they move out of the shelters to make sure problems such as illness or disputes with landlords don’t force them onto the street again.

“None of us had the capacity to do that kind of support” before, said Jon Bradley, associate director of Preble Street. “People who needed support over time ended up back at the shelter.”

About 300 people stay in Portland’s various shelters on a given night, although new faces are continuously replacing old ones.

Although a small portion of the city’s chronically homeless will not qualify for the re-housing program because of severe mental illness or addictions to drugs or alcohol, a large number don’t need to be in the shelters, Bradley said. “With the right kind of help, they can really get housed and stay housed,” he said.

Those who are getting help include families as well as individuals. In March, for example, the program helped provide homes for 37 households with a total of 50 people.

Castro, who is 27 and single, was a prime candidate for the program.

She works full time as a housekeeper in a hotel downtown. But her income — below $10 an hour — couldn’t cover the cost of rent, and she has no family to turn to for help, she said.

“Not a lot of people who are homeless have the fall-back people to help them,” she said.

Sleeping on a folding cot each night, she couldn’t even dream of saving up enough for an apartment, she said. “I was really just saving for a bed, to be honest,” Castro said.

The program helped her get into an apartment while waiting to qualify for a rent subsidy. She no longer has to fight for a shower to get to work on time, she said.

Castro’s new third-floor apartment is an $825-a-month, one-bedroom unit with wood floors and a built-in bookcase to hold her diploma from Traip Academy and her collection of Precious Moments figures.

And her bedroom is just the right size for the queen-size bed she bought secondhand from her boss.

“It’s beautiful,” she said.

 

Staff Writer John Richardson can be contacted at 791-6324 or at:

jrichardson@pressherald.com