July 25, 2012

Portland's homeless front: More people than ever seek shelter

Demand for beds routinely surpasses supply, a situation made worse by the loss of a federally funded program.

By Randy Billings rbillings@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

PORTLAND — More than 400 people on average sought overnight shelter in the city last month – the highest number since the city began keeping records in 1987.

click image to enlarge

Tim Frary, originally from Texas, says he has been homeless since losing his job at the Portland International Jetport in April. Here, Frary waits with others outside the Oxford Street shelter in Portland on Tuesday evening.

Photos by John Ewing/Staff Photographer

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Joseph Bowory, 34, says he’s stayed at the Oxford Street Shelter on and off for 13 years when he’s in between jobs and apartments.

Additional Photos Below

THE TREND

Here is the average number of people seeking overnight shelter in Portland in the month of June for each of the past five years.

2008 – 292

2009 – 299

2010 –  320

2011 – 354

2012 – 411

Source: City of Portland

Last year, the city started using the Preble Street Resource Center as an emergency overflow location for an additional 75 people. But now the numbers are overwhelming that location, forcing the city to open up its General Assistance office on Lancaster Street, where people are sleeping in chairs.

The GA office, which can hold 50 people, was used as overnight shelter for eight to 12 people nearly every day last week. About 22 people used it Monday, and seven people were there as of 10 p.m. Tuesday.

"I'm disturbed by the trend," Mayor Michael Brennan said. "It's just unacceptable to have people sitting up in chairs in an office all night because we have no place for them to sleep."

Officials attribute the rise mostly to the loss of the city's Homelessness Prevention, Rapid Re-Housing Program, which ran out of federal funding last November.

The two-year program, funded by $876,000 from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, paid for seven full-time employees and provided rental assistance and support services.

The spike in homelessness is also affecting the Preble Street soup kitchen and food pantry. Last year, they reached a milestone by serving 1,000 meals on one day in April. This past April, the kitchen served an average of 1,000 meals a day, according to Donna Yellen, a social worker and director of advocacy for the Maine Hunger Initiative at Preble Street Resource Center.

This month the kitchen is serving an average of 1,200 meals a day, said Yellen.

"We know numbers increase during the summer," Yellen said. "But this summer is very unusual and one we're worried about."

The shelter numbers jumped this summer, too. Before June, an average of 357 people sought shelter in Portland.

In June, an average of 411 people sought overnight shelter – an increase of 57 people over June 2011. It's the first time the average has exceeded 400 people in the 25 years of recording keeping.

"It's certainly a troubling statistic," said Doug Gardner, director of the city's Health and Human Services department "It's not a milestone we're particularly pleased with."

Portland has had a policy of not turning away anyone seeking shelter since 1987, when then-City Manager Bob Ganley instituted the rule after a homeless encampment sprang up at City Hall to protest the closure of a shelter.

A recent staff analysis found that only one-third of Portland's homeless are from Portland, while one-third are from out of state and one-third are from other Maine towns.

"Portland has always been a hospitable and compassionate city, and I think we want to continue to move in that direction," Brennan said. "Regardless of where people come from, we want to do the best we can to find housing, job opportunities and allow people to live in Portland as a fully participating member of the community."

The city currently operates two shelters – the Oxford Street Shelter and the Family Shelter – while nonprofit groups, like Preble Street Resource Center, operate several others that focus on women, youths and those with substance abuse problems.

The city-run Oxford Street Shelter has 129 beds but can accommodate an additional 25 people on mats. When that shelter is full, the overflow location opens at the Preble Street Resource Center for up to 75 men, who sleep on mats.

On Tuesday, scores of people were milling around a fenced-in courtyard on Oxford Street, waiting for the shelter to open.

A 42-year-old woman named Laura said she arrives at 4 p.m., even though the shelter doesn't open until 6 p.m., to make sure she gets a bed. "I make sure I get checked in early," said Laura, who has been staying a the shelter for the last eight months.

(Continued on page 2)

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Additional Photos

click image to enlarge

Portland’s General Assistance Office is being used Tuesday night to shelter homeless people unable to find beds in other city shelters that are at capacity.

  


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