The number of homeless Mainers climbed 26 percent in the past year despite a drop in homelessness nationwide, according to federal data released Thursday.
From 2012 to 2013, the total number of homeless people in the U.S. dropped by 23,740, or 4 percent.
In Maine, homelessness increased from 2,393 people in 2012 to 3,016 this year. The increase was statewide, although most significant in Portland.
“A lot of people don’t realize how hard and draining it really can be,” said 20-year-old Crystal Swain, who said she has been homeless in Portland since she was 17 and left an abusive and unsafe home. “It’s been a real long time and I’ve dealt with a lot of things. I’ve seen a lot of violence. I’ve seen a lot of pain.”
Both federal and Portland officials say they are making progress in reducing homelessness among veterans. Nationwide, the numbers dropped by 7.6 percent to 4,770 people, apparently because of housing assistance programs aimed at people who served in the armed forces.
In Portland, those efforts effectively kept the number of homeless veterans from increasing along with the overall rise in homelessness, which jumped 30.7 percent, from 631 people in 2012 to 825 in 2013.
Josh O’Brien, director of the city-run Oxford Street Shelter, said only 8 percent of Portland’s homeless residents are veterans. Eight years ago, veterans comprised 25 percent of the city’s homeless population, he said.
The national statistics were released Thursday by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which provides an annual homeless assessment report to Congress. The assessment is based on the number of homeless people counted in shelters and campsites around the country during one night in January.
Portland has experienced record-setting use of its shelters. In September, for the first month in city history, an average of more than 500 people a night sought emergency shelter, overflowing shelters and forcing men and women to sleep on mats and chairs in converted offices.
SEVERAL REASONS FOR INCREASE
Jon Bradley, associate director of the Preble Street social services agency, said he thinks Maine’s growing homeless population is a result of inadequate state funding of mental health and substance abuse programs. Also, he said, those who conduct the annual survey are getting better at finding unsheltered homeless people.
“We need more targeted services and support. And we need more affordable housing,” Bradley said.
Portland’s rental market is so tight that officials have been unable to secure housing for people who have Section 8 housing vouchers.
Some homeless residents have said they came to Maine, and particularly to Portland, because more services and more assistance are available here, from health care to housing assistance.
The new federal data details homelessness among children for the first time.
Nationally, 7,634 children younger than 18 were homeless, while in Portland that figure was 63. Some say homelessness among youths is underreported because young people avoid shelters and stay with friends or camp out instead.
Swain, the 20-year-old in Portland, said she has seen a big increase in the number of young people sleeping in shelters in the past three years, although she can’t explain why. “A lot of us don’t have families,” she said.
Swain is confident that she won’t be counted among the homeless in 2014. She is now receiving disability benefits, and plans to move into an apartment by the end of the year and start studying for a marine biology degree at Southern Maine Community College.
“I’m finally starting to get my things straight,” she said.
FOCUS ON HOUSING FOR VETERANS
The one area in which homelessness increased nationwide was the number of people in families who were counted in homeless shelters, mirroring a local trend.
The number of families seeking emergency shelter in Portland increased 19 percent this year from a year ago, and a tight rental market is forcing people to stay longer and overflow the city’s family shelter. Portland spent more than $61,174 on motel rooms for homeless families during the past year, more than triple what it spent in fiscal 2012.
HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan said the new national data shows that the Obama administration’s strategic plan to end homelessness has produced a “steady and significant” decrease in the homeless population nationwide, especially among veterans However, he said, the continuation of automatic federal spending cuts known as sequestration will reduce the amount of funding for those programs by 5 percent beginning next year.
The Obama administration and officials in Portland have targeted homelessness among veterans as a top priority.
O’Brien, Portland’s shelter director, said the city has reallocated an existing staff position to work with veterans and move them into apartments. Also, the Department of Veterans Affairs regularly sends counselors to Portland’s shelters, giving them easy access to health, substance abuse and mental health services, he said.
PORTLAND KNOWN FOR ITS SERVICES
Chris Wagner, a Coast Guard veteran, is one of the most recent success stories.
Wagner, 51, and his partner, Robin Trout, 39, were homeless for nearly two years before they moved Monday into an apartment downtown.
They lost their previous apartment in 2011, shortly after their newborn daughter died and he stopped working and couldn’t keep up with rent.
“It just escalated to being homeless,” Wagner said. “We went to Walmart, we bought a tent and we lived out there in the woods … on the Portland and Westbrook line.”
Wagner said he saw the increase in homelessness while living in the woods for the past two years. “Robin and I were the first ones here and now I’m going to say there are a dozen people out here,” he said Thursday as he collected belongings from his former campsite.
Wagner said he believes one factor is that Portland is known as a place where the homeless can find services such as shelter and health care, as well as help restoring their independence.
“If you want to help yourself, you will get help,” he said.
O’Brien said it’s important to end homelessness for veterans because they have sacrificed so much for the country, and to prove to policymakers that ending homelessness is possible.
“It just takes that dedicated focus of resources,” he said.
Staff Writer John Richardson contributed to this report.
Randy Billings can be contacted at 791-6346 or at: