ROCKLAND — A bill sponsored by Lewiston Democratic Sen. Margaret Craven – L.D. 1717, An Act to Support Homeless Shelters – went to hearing last month and is currently before the Legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee.

The first section of the bill proposes that funding for homeless youth stay in the geographic region it was intended for, paying attention to the proportion of homeless in that area, even in the event that a shelter in that area closes.

The second section of the bill requests allocation of funding for youth homeless shelters to offset the recent decrease in federal funding for these shelters.

Both sections of the bill should be passed, as homelessness in Maine is growing, but funding to address it is not. But Craven, despite being sponsor of the measure, apparently is supporting only the first section of the bill.

In written testimony, she said: “Part 1 of this bill simply requires that, should a homeless youth program go out of business, its funds would be kept within its district. This only makes sense. The homeless youth in that region do not cease to exist just because a shelter has closed. They are still there and needing somewhere to stay. When a shelter closes, those available shelters in the region face a greater demand on their services, and need the funds that would have gone to the closed shelter.”

The first section of this bill was supported by most participants in the public hearing. It makes common sense to allow funding to remain in place without facing challenges of reallocation to another region.

We seldom hear of a shelter closing because of a lack of need or homeless to serve. Shelters close because of a funding shortage, leaving the homeless in that area out in the cold, and often with few alternatives. The ever-increasing numbers of homeless youth in Maine need any help they can get at this point, and reallocating funding to another area because of a shelter’s closing just does not make sense.

Currently, the Department of Health and Human Services allocates homeless youth funding based on the proportion of need in each area. The agency isn’t interested in changing this formula, Therese Cahill Lowe, director of the DHHS’ Office of Child and Family Services, indicated in her testimony.

Reallocation of the limited funding available, however, leaves those in the area of a shelter closing not only without a shelter, but also without funding to help keep them safe and their basic survival needs met.

The second section of the bill suggests that $750,000 be allocated to programs for homeless youth.

In her written testimony, Craven asked that the second part of the bill not be considered. She offered no reasoning beyond saying, “This is not the time … to ask for additional state funds,” although she did note that “homeless funding, both from the state and federal governments has been falling steadily over the last few years, and the need for the shelters is as great, or greater than ever.”

Homelessness is indeed a rapidly growing problem in Maine. Rep. Sheryl Briggs, D-Mexico, a co-sponsor of L.D. 1717, said in her testimony that homelessness in Maine has increased 26 percent from 2012 to 2013. If we can recognize as a fact that the population of homeless people in Maine is growing, and that there is a paucity in funding, how can we refuse funding for this bill?

Research has repeatedly shown the risks inherent in homelessness, especially for homeless youth.

When youth are faced with homelessness, they are at a significantly increased risk for a number of problems, including not graduating from high school and an increased rate of incarceration, chronic and severe mental health disorders, unemployment, sexually transmitted diseases and other chronic health issues. Shelters work to combat these risks providing education, health, mental health, and prevention services.

If now is not the time to allocate funding to help offer our homeless youth a future, then when?

With the average cost of housing a prison inmate in the state of Maine approaching $40,000 a year, along with the costs of future homelessness, unemployment and Medicaid, we as a state will likely spend far more in the future without this funding now.

Written testimony by Susan Lamb of the Maine Chapter of the National Association of Social Workers says it well: “$750,000.00 is not a small bit of change in these difficult times, but we must order our priorities to meet the needs of those who are most vulnerable.”

— Special to the Press Herald