Every night, hundreds of our neighbors across Maine have no place to call their own. Sleeping in the woods, under bridges, or anywhere they can, these forgotten souls are engaged in a constant fight for survival. But their fight is our fight, because here in Maine we understand the importance of working together to improve lives and strengthen our communities.

Maine’s 42 emergency shelters offer protection from the elements, a warm place to sleep, and access to services – from employment to health care to mental health to transportation – that can provide a pathway out of homelessness. But this patchwork quilt of support and safety is itself threatened by both a growing need and an unstable funding system.

Just last year, Halcyon House, one of only four dedicated shelters in the state for young people, closed its doors for good. In Portland alone, five agencies – Catholic Charities, the Salvation Army, YWCA, Youth Alternatives and Ingraham – all closed shelters in the last decade.

Maine’s emergency shelters are scrambling to stay open, using whatever funding streams they can find. And many are losing their footing.

Emergency shelter funding hasn’t been thoughtfully discussed or debated by the state of Maine for over 25 years. It’s time we do so. What is our collective obligation and responsibility as a state in supporting the life-saving and community-serving work of homeless shelters?

Each year, Maine sets aside $380,000 in general funds to support 42 shelters across the state. That amount covers only $1.04 per person per night – a tiny fraction of the actual cost. And it’s a significant reduction from the $500,000 budgeted back in 1987, when the state first committed to funding emergency shelters.

Remaining funding comes largely from MaineHousing, which provides $2.4 million from the HOME Fund to support shelters. As life-saving as that support is, the HOME Fund was created primarily to help Mainers establish and maintain safe, adequate, permanent housing, not to pay for emergency shelter. And $7.61 per bed is still woefully inadequate to meet the enormous need.

And, because all of this funding is discretionary, it is constantly threatened.

Recently there has been media and political attention to questions about the appropriateness of using General Assistance to provide additional support to shelters, which happens in Portland and Bangor, where the need is greatest. And while it’s arguable whether “G.A.” is an appropriate source of funding for emergency shelters, it’s become an important part of the funding mix that enables shelters to keep their doors open because no other funds are available.

It’s time for a serious public policy discussion about the challenges of people experiencing homelessness, the funding of shelters, and the impacts on our communities and local economies. It’s time to look at new ways to support a safe and stable shelter network in Maine.

Why not transition support for shelters away from the current cobbled-together collection of funding sources? Instead, the Maine Legislature could create a Maine Community Shelter Fund, designed to provide meaningful and sufficient support for Maine’s emergency shelters.

Most religious people feel responsible to care for our struggling brothers and sisters. And most Mainers, religious or not, feel a strong sense of community and will go to great lengths to help others in need. At the same time, business leaders know economic prosperity depends on making sure as many people as possible have the opportunity to contribute to creating vibrant, strong and healthy communities.

Maine must acknowledge that emergency shelters – the “first responders” for people whose lives are unraveling – are not just a safety net but also a crucial component of a robust socio-economic model that supports its citizens in crisis. And it must fund them accordingly.

No matter where we live, how we vote, or what we do for a living, we all want our tax dollars to be spent as wisely and efficiently as possible. A Maine Community Shelter Fund could be a solution that stabilizes funding for this critical need and builds upon the broad support among individuals and businesses to strengthen our communities by helping those struggling with homelessness.

Instead of pointing fingers and focusing on what doesn’t work, we have the opportunity to work together to create a good, compassionate, common sense public policy. Let’s support our lawmakers in creating a new system for safe shelters and sustainable communities.