ALFRED — In their recent commentary, “Maine needs new way to fund emergency homeless shelters” (March 15), Richard Berman and the Rev. James Haddix have correctly identified some of the problems associated with the practice of providing emergency shelter to Maine’s homeless folks, and have resurfaced a mechanism to accomplish that function: Put more money into emergency shelters. That would, of course, satisfy those who care about and run emergency shelters, although it will do little to solve the problem of homelessness in Maine.

In the history of mankind, we’ve spent billions of dollars designing, manufacturing and distributing drill bits. The truth, however, is that nobody ever wanted a drill bit – they wanted a hole.

And so it is with people who happen to be so poor they can no longer afford a place to live: They don’t need an emergency shelter, they need a home. A place to call their own where they have privacy, don’t have to sleep on the floor and are not told to leave at 7 a.m.

If the state and federal governments were to come up with a huge amount of money dedicated to enriching the budgets of Maine’s courageous, overwhelmed and underfunded emergency shelters, the shelters would become more stable, provide better emergency shelter services and remain full. If the shelters added beds, they would fill up within a short time and remain full.

Emergency shelter budgets are a patchwork of donations, fundraising efforts, $7 or $8 per person per day from the Maine State Housing Authority, some General Assistance dollars in Portland and Bangor and the gifts of cash and goods from good-hearted companies, groups, churches and individuals who truly believe all people have great worth, even the poor.

Shelters, of all the community-based human services agencies, are the most efficient, clever and determined businesses, providing unbelievably good care for a population that would otherwise be hospitalized, incarcerated, miserable or dead. And they do this for mere pennies compared to the multimillion-dollar budgets of other social and behavioral health service providers.

As long as we continue to pay attention to the drill bit, though, we will never identify, let alone solve, the problem. People who are homeless need a place to live, substance abuse and mental health treatment, medical care, employment training and a community to which to belong – not another church basement, Quonset hut or underfunded public institution in which they spend the night, and are then sent out to forage for themselves during the day.

Mainstream human services providers, in the meantime, pretend to be amazed that these poor souls didn’t keep their scheduled appointments, pay their bills or do as they were told. They soon become labeled “treatment-resistant” and “unwilling to change” and are assigned to the dreaded waiting list.

Many people who are homeless have great and persistent problems that contributed to their now being homeless, and unless those who propose housing them have the ability and resolve to surround them with those needed services, they will inevitably return to the emergency shelter circuit.

In the early 1990s, Michael Brennan – now Portland’s mayor – was a driving force behind the creation of housing for people who were homeless, helping to push through a $9 million housing bond issue that created hundreds of permanent homes for people who were homeless and suffering from mental illness.

Early on, I opposed that strategy, arguing (less eloquently than Mr. Berman and the Rev. Haddix) that what was really needed was more, and dedicated, funding for emergency shelters. Fortunately, I lost that argument, and I’ve come to better understand the importance of permanent housing with services, versus life on an emergency shelter treadmill.

The time is ripe to begin a different and more focused discussion: Why, after all these years, millions of dollars, huge investments of time and energy and promises, do we have more homeless folks than before? The state budget, for example, is over twice as big as it was 25 years ago, and mental health funding has increased dramatically in those budgets, yet we can now count 20 times more people who are homeless. How come?

Helping homeless people find decent housing while surrounding them with needed social services will usually put an end to their homelessness cycle, and an end to society’s need to fight about where the next $4 million or $5 million in emergency shelter funding will come from. So why not fix the problem this time, rather than engaging in another dogfight over Band-Aids at the expense of poor people lining up to sleep on the floor?