Organizations that serve the homeless in Augusta, Portland and York County have all recently lost their longtime, transformational leaders. The changeovers come as Maine’s homeless population has seemed to shrink slightly from the record peaks of the last few years, but it remains regrettably high.

These three organizations, and others like them across the state, have recognized that the most effective way to combat chronic homelessness is by getting the homeless out of shelters and into permanent housing.

It is a time of transition, both for these groups as they change leadership, and for homeless advocates as a whole, as they promote this new philosophy.

Going forward, they’ll need lawmakers to fund housing programs, and residents to support these projects in their communities.

Don Gean, who took over what is now York County Shelter Programs in Alfred in 1985 and retired in March, transformed the organization into a multifaceted service provider for the homeless.

Josh O’Brien, director of Portland’s largest homeless shelter, led his organization for 10 years, through a dramatic rise in homelessness amidst a crippling economic downturn. Dean LaChance did the same in Augusta, at Bread of Life Ministries, where he worked for eight years, including the last five as executive director.

LaChance left in April, and his replacement, John Richardson, started last month. O’Brien’s last day was Thursday.

HOUSING PUSH

All three leaders embraced the need for transitional and permanent housing, to get people off the street into a secure environment, breaking a cycle of chronic homelessness that is so costly in both human and monetary terms.

In Portland, the city works with the homeless to establish a housing plan, and with landlords to find apartments. Bread of Life operates 17 transitional and 64 permanent housing units.

In Alfred, Gean’s organization started with only a small, worn emergency shelter.

It now has 36 residences, and many of the occupants are on a long waiting list for federal vouchers and would otherwise be on the streets.

That’s not to downplay the importance of shelters, which are critical in helping people who are suddenly homeless because they have fallen on hard times or are escaping a bad situation. But shelter living should be temporary, and as the number of chronically homeless people has increased, it has left less room for people in emergencies. Shelters are a stopgap, and a potentially expensive one when compared to permanent housing.

A study released in 2009 found that placing homeless Mainers in permanent supportive housing led to savings in health care, in law enforcement and the legal system, and in ambulance services.

In rural areas, the average cost savings by the second year in housing was $2,751 per person. In the Greater Portland area, because of the higher cost of housing, the average savings was $135 per person.

CROWDING OUT

Subsequent research has supported the findings, particularly when substance abuse counseling, health care, education and training services are correctly coordinated with the participants. In most cases, when the homeless are given homes, the costs to society at least break even, and often are lowered.

If the homeless stay homeless, society is simply paying the same price – or more – for someone to live and die on the street.

Homeless advocates in Maine and across the country have known this for some time, and now the federal government is following along.

Under President Obama, there has been an increase in reliance on housing vouchers, the main means for providing housing to the homeless.

However, the recent sequestration led to a cut in vouchers, and the budget proposal now in the U.S. House cuts $300 million from the president’s $2.4 billion proposal for homeless assistance, according to the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities.

Maine is fortunate to have many dedicated and compassionate people dealing with the state’s significant homeless problem at the street level.

With the support of the right kind of programs, they can make a difference, saving lives, and money.