Wednesday, April 16, 2014
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Alan Garland, originally from Bangor, reads on a mat this month after setting up his bedding at the Oxford Street Shelter in Portland. Under a new policy, Garland had to meet with a counselor and agree on a plan to find permanent housing.
Photos by Tim Greenway/Staff Photographer
Before, the homeless could stay indefinitely. Now to do that, they must be working to find housing.
Portland city staff has advocated for the change for years, said City Councilor Ed Suslovic, who chairs the council's Public Safety, Health and Human Services Committee.
The City Council, however, had been resistant because advocates for the homeless opposed establishing barriers for shelter access, arguing that barriers would simply force people into the street, Suslovic said.
He said that opposition has changed, and advocates now support the policy because the city's shelter system has become so overcrowded.
Between fiscal years 2008 and 2012, annual shelter bed usage in the city -- the total number of beds occupied each night for the year -- grew 36 percent, from 99,016 to 134,202.
One way to deal with overcrowding is to build another emergency shelter, but nobody sees that as a good solution, said Jon Bradley, associate director at Preble Street. Rather, it's better to focus on getting people permanent housing and helping them address the issues that pushed them into homelessness in the first place, such as substance addiction.
The policy change is helping in that effort because it makes the work of case managers and housing counselors more efficient, Bradley said.
Moreover, Suslovic said, the previous open-door policy enabled people to avoid taking steps to improve their lives.
"Simply asking people to come and stay as long as you'd like on the floor, 18 inches from your neighbor, is not helping people improve the situation," he said.
Some homeless people have worried that the new policy could be so severe it would be "abusive," but it is designed to be flexible so shelter staff can take into account each person's individual situation, said Jim Devine, 59, a former homeless person who serves on the board of Homeless Voices for Justice. Devine helped develop the new policy, which has been in the works for nearly a year.
"It tries to make housing counseling more available and encourages people to participate," he said. "The bottom line: If you are totally uncooperative and won't participate at all, shelter services ultimately could be denied. That is a last resort."
The policy works this way: People arriving at the shelter are told they have seven days to meet with a housing counselor at the shelter or a case manager at Preble Street to develop a plan to obtain permanent housing or services. Such a plan, for example, could stipulate that they apply for a subsidized housing voucher from the city, obtain documents they need to qualify for Social Security benefits, or apply to be treated for a substance abuse or mental health problem.
As long as people stay at the shelter, they must show they are actively working on the plan.
Those who don't work with a counselor are given notice to meet with one within 48 hours or lose access to the shelter.
If they still do not meet with a counselor, they are given a "suspension of services" letter that states: "Shelter is meant to be a temporary, emergency resource. To date, we have not been able to identify any prohibitive barriers you may have to achieving more suitable housing via a housing plan, and our outreach efforts to work with you on a housing plan have been unsuccessful."
People who are on notice will receive the letter when they enter the shelter for the evening, and are told that will be their last night at the shelter unless they meet with a housing counselor the next day.
Shelter officials will take into consideration whether a person faces other obstacles that would prevent him or her from meeting with a counselor, such as a mental health or substance abuse problem, said O'Brien, the director at Oxford Street.
People are given suspension letters in private. Since March 27, the city has issued 29 letters of suspension. So far, 20 of those people have met with staff to develop a housing plan.
"As soon as they want to re-engage, the suspension is lifted immediately," O'Brien said.
Tom Bell can be contacted at 791-6369 or at: