November 22, 2013

U.S. homelessness falls, but in Maine it’s up 26%

Officials cite several reasons for the state increase, especially in Portland, which has had success helping veterans find housing.

By Randy Billings rbillings@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

The number of homeless Mainers climbed 26 percent in the past year despite a drop in homelessness nationwide, according to federal data released Thursday.

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Crystal Swain, 20, says she left an abusive and unsafe home and has been homeless in Portland since she was 17. She says she often makes use of the teen shelter in Portland.

Tim Greenway/Staff Photographer

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Chris Wagner, a Coast Guard veteran, and Robin Trout saw more homeless people while living in the woods for nearly two years before moving into a Portland apartment Monday.

John Ewing/Staff Photographer

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From 2012 to 2013, the total number of homeless people in the U.S. dropped by 23,740, or 4 percent.

In Maine, homelessness increased from 2,393 people in 2012 to 3,016 this year. The increase was statewide, although most significant in Portland.

“A lot of people don’t realize how hard and draining it really can be,” said 20-year-old Crystal Swain, who said she has been homeless in Portland since she was 17 and left an abusive and unsafe home. “It’s been a real long time and I’ve dealt with a lot of things. I’ve seen a lot of violence. I’ve seen a lot of pain.”

Both federal and Portland officials say they are making progress in reducing homelessness among veterans. Nationwide, the numbers dropped by 7.6 percent to 4,770 people, apparently because of housing assistance programs aimed at people who served in the armed forces.

In Portland, those efforts effectively kept the number of homeless veterans from increasing along with the overall rise in homelessness, which jumped 30.7 percent, from 631 people in 2012 to 825 in 2013.

Josh O’Brien, director of the city-run Oxford Street Shelter, said only 8 percent of Portland’s homeless residents are veterans. Eight years ago, veterans comprised 25 percent of the city’s homeless population, he said.

The national statistics were released Thursday by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which provides an annual homeless assessment report to Congress. The assessment is based on the number of homeless people counted in shelters and campsites around the country during one night in January.

Portland has experienced record-setting use of its shelters. In September, for the first month in city history, an average of more than 500 people a night sought emergency shelter, overflowing shelters and forcing men and women to sleep on mats and chairs in converted offices.

SEVERAL REASONS FOR INCREASE

Jon Bradley, associate director of the Preble Street social services agency, said he thinks Maine’s growing homeless population is a result of inadequate state funding of mental health and substance abuse programs. Also, he said, those who conduct the annual survey are getting better at finding unsheltered homeless people.

“We need more targeted services and support. And we need more affordable housing,” Bradley said.

Portland’s rental market is so tight that officials have been unable to secure housing for people who have Section 8 housing vouchers.

Some homeless residents have said they came to Maine, and particularly to Portland, because more services and more assistance are available here, from health care to housing assistance.

The new federal data details homelessness among children for the first time.

Nationally, 7,634 children younger than 18 were homeless, while in Portland that figure was 63. Some say homelessness among youths is underreported because young people avoid shelters and stay with friends or camp out instead.

Swain, the 20-year-old in Portland, said she has seen a big increase in the number of young people sleeping in shelters in the past three years, although she can’t explain why. “A lot of us don’t have families,” she said.

Swain is confident that she won’t be counted among the homeless in 2014. She is now receiving disability benefits, and plans to move into an apartment by the end of the year and start studying for a marine biology degree at Southern Maine Community College.

“I’m finally starting to get my things straight,” she said.

FOCUS ON HOUSING FOR VETERANS

The one area in which homelessness increased nationwide was the number of people in families who were counted in homeless shelters, mirroring a local trend.

(Continued on page 2)

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