PORTLAND – At Lyman Moore Middle School on Thursday, a seventh grader asked Jed Rathband how he would combat the city’s growing homeless problem if elected mayor.

Last week, a resident at St. Peter’s Church asked 10 of the 15 mayoral candidates a similar question.

With growing numbers of homeless in Portland straining the city’s resources, homelessness has become one of the dominant themes of this mayor’s race, only outdone by concerns about the economy.

There has been a 14 percent jump in demand for shelter beds in the last year, from 337 people a night in September 2010 to 384 people this September. More telling is a 42 percent jump in demand during that same period for shelter for homeless families, from 2,400 beds a month a year ago to 3,400 beds a month this year.

“It’s a serious, serious issue in Portland,” mayoral candidate Ethan Strimling said.

Because of its prominence at debates, nearly every candidate has weighed in with a plan to improve the city’s homeless situation.

Some have advocated drastic changes. Candidate Richard Dodge said he would like to buy bus tickets for non-Portland residents back to their hometowns. Portland needs to focus its resources on its own residents, he said. Other communities will provide better services, he said, only if Portland stops accepting their most vulnerable citizens.

“It’s called self-interest,” Dodge said. “We need to only focus on taking care of our own. Then we’ll have the money to take care of our own.”

Other candidates disagree. Former state Sen. Michael Brennan said in the late 1990s, the city promised to provide a bed for anyone who needs it. As mayor, he said, he intends to keep that promise.

Brennan said groups that go out and actively engage homeless residents, like the HOME Team, have shown success and reduced hospital admissions. The HOME Team transports people from in front of residences and businesses to shelters.

The city needs to form more public-private partnerships with interested organizations and pooled resources, Brennan said, who can then keep engaging the homeless even as state funds are reduced.

Brennan and City Councilor David Marshall, also a candidate, said the city needs to help construct more housing-first facilities like Logan Place and Florence House, two local nonprofits that provide efficiency apartments and support staff to homeless people.

“When people have a safe place to go and to sleep and to have a few belongings, that’s the first step back to getting one’s life on track,” Marshall said. Once they have a safe place to live, he said, they can focus on issues such as volunteering. All able-bodied residents must volunteer to receive general assistance in the city.

Marshall said he’d like to reform the volunteer program, known as workfare. If the homeless can volunteer for a wider variety of jobs, say through bartering programs like The Hour Exchange, they can acquire job skills and network with more residents. That can lead to jobs, he said.

Marshall also said it’s cheaper to provide housing for the homeless than pay for services on a daily basis. He cited the book “Million-Dollar Murray” about a homeless individual who racked up $1 million in services in one year.

“(Housing the homeless) caps those costs, and it gives people a safe place to live,” he said.

Portland spends millions of dollars each year on homeless and General Assistance services. It budgeted $665,000 from the general fund this year to operate the Oxford Street and Emergency Family shelters. Those shelters also get additional money from the General Assistance program, to which the city contributes $2.3 million.

The city also contributes hundreds of thousands of more dollars in grants to programs like its Healthcare for the Homeless clinic. Since July, it has also had to house many families in hotels at night because of a lack of space in the family shelter, said Nicole Clegg, the city’s spokesperson.

Rathband said the city needs to work with surrounding communities on a regional plan, since it helps many residents from those communities.

Candidates Hamza Haadoow and Charles Bragdon said they’d like to start an internship program with local businesses, where the homeless can acquire jobs skills and build their resumes.

Rathband and Strimling said the homelessness is a symptom of the economy. Strimling cited a 15 percent vacancy downtown as evidence. “The majority of homeless people in shelters are there because they’re poor,” Strimling said. “If we create an economy with better and stronger jobs, we’re going to move people off the street.”

Firefighter and candidate Chris Vail said during his time working for the city, he sees the police, fire department, hospitals and shelters pass some homeless around multiple times per day.

He admits to not having any solutions. But he said groups passing people on to the next agency isn’t sustainable, and as mayor, he’d encourage them to meet and figure out long-term solutions.

“There’s definitely solutions out there,” he said. “Why we haven’t gotten everyone together before and had a serious conversation doesn’t make sense.”

Jason Singer can be reached at 791-6437 or: jsinger@mainetoday.com