October 27, 2013

Homelessness hits record high in Portland

Maine's largest city struggles to accommodate displaced families.

By Randy Billings rbillings@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

Homelessness has surged to a new, record-setting level in Portland, with more than 500 people seeking emergency shelter last month for the first time in city history.

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Vanessa Gilliam, 34, and her family are living in a room at the Motel 6 on Brighton Avenue, which the city uses as overflow housing for homeless families.

Gabe Souza/Staff Photographer

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Yves Manoka, his wife, Mamie, and their sons have been living at Portland’s family shelter since July 31. Their first U.S. residence was Charlotte, N.C., but a friend urged them to move to Portland because it’s “a good city.”

Gordon Chibroski/Staff Photographer

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The rise has been most dramatic among displaced families, who now overflow the city’s family shelter into area hotels at a much higher rate. But so many individuals also are overflowing the adult shelters that they are being sheltered in converted offices and sleeping on floor mats or in chairs.

The record levels of homelessness come even as many other signs point to an economic recovery. Unemployment is down slightly. Home sales are up. And a cascade of market-rate residential projects are in the pipeline for Portland’s downtown.

But the numbers at Portland’s homeless shelters tell a different story.

“People are in desperate times right now,” said Jeff Tardiff, the director of the city-run family shelter.

At the top of three flights of stairs inside a modest, three-level apartment building on Chestnut Street, a toddler welcomed visitors inside a four-bedroom apartment overlooking Back Cove as his mother sat at the table chopping vegetables and a pot of water boiled on the stove.

The apartment is an emergency shelter for families who have nowhere else to turn. Each small bedroom houses a family of up to five people, who sleep on bunk beds surrounded by practically all of their possessions.

Some of the people here are victims of domestic violence or the sluggish economy. Others lost their homes because the city condemned their apartment buildings.

An increasing number of families at the shelter are from foreign countries, either with green cards or in the U.S. to seek political asylum.

Yves Manoka, 32, has been staying at the family shelter since July 31. A native of the Democratic Republic of Congo, he came to the U.S. on a green card he received through a lottery conducted by the U.S. Embassy.

“My dream was to one day ... come to America,” Manoka said.

Manoka arrived in the U.S. on May 28 with his wife and three children, whose ages range from 19 months to 11 years. The family’s first stop was Charlotte, N.C., but Manoka said his friend recommended he move to Portland because it was “a good city.”

After staying at the shelter for nearly three months, Manoka said he and his family have finally found an apartment to rent on Sherman Street in Portland’s Parkside neighborhood. Once he moves in, he hopes to find a job.

“I wish one day to be a truck driver,” he said.

FAMILY EMERGENCY

The number of families seeking emergency shelter in Portland increased 19 percent this year from a year ago, and a tight rental market is forcing people to stay longer.

The city is increasingly turning to motels as overflow shelters for families. Over the past year, the city spent more than $61,174 on motel rooms for homeless families. That’s more than triple the $16,341 spent on motels in fiscal year 2012.

Vanessa Gilliam, 34, along with her longtime boyfriend and two kids, has been calling the Motel 6 on Riverside Street home for the last several days.

Gilliam lost her job as a cashier when a fire destroyed Colucci’s market on Munjoy Hill. She had worked a deal with the landlord of her Cumberland Avenue apartment to hold onto the apartment until the store reopened.

But, Gilliam said, her former boss told her that the store was being sold and her job was not guaranteed to return, and she was forced to move out. After camping out for the summer in Limington, the cold weather swept her and her family back into the family shelter in Portland – a facility she has been in and out of a handful of times in recent years.

(Continued on page 2)

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Additional Photos

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Jeff Tardiff, director of the Family Shelter, says landlords are partial to apartment hunters who can pay cash. That makes it difficult for the city to find apartments for tenants with federal Section 8 vouchers.f

Gordon Chibroski/Staff Photographer

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Gordon Chibroski/Staff Photographer Brian Marchant, left, and Bonane Rutijanwa, shelter attendants for Portland’s Oxford Street Shelter, arrange mats on the floor of the General Assistance Office Thursday for homeless people to sleep on if the other shelters are full.

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