A citizens group has undertaken an effort to stem homelessness in Bath. But first it must define the extent of the problem.

Homelessness is a perennial issue, but with the uncertain state of the economy, shelter officials say they’ve seen an increase in those seeking emergency shelter as the onset of winter approaches.

In Bath, homelesness ranges from teenage students “sofa surfing” in the winter and tent camping in the summer, to long-term homeless adults with mental-health or substance-abuse issues, to men and women escaping abusive and unstable relationships, to homeless families who have lost a job and, subsequently, their housing.

“In the last decade we have seen cuts to programs serving the poor, and opportunities with resources to solve problems were becoming increasingly rare,” Cullen Ryan, executive director of Community Housing in Maine, wrote in a recent article distributed by the citizens group. “This is sad because we know exactly how to end homelessness, and whenever we commit the resources to do so, we can end it.”

About 30 people attended Bath Initiative on Homelessness meeting Oct. 28 in Bath, including representatives of local human service agencies, Sagadahoc County Sheriff Joel Merry, Bath City Councilor David Sinclair, four people who came to share information about their own experiences with homelessness, and other concerned citizens.

They were told that several successful programs for helping homeless people — such as the “wraparound program” run by Sweetser in Brunswick — have since been defunded, and that existing support services are not meeting the needs of an expanding population.

“Wraparound” services helped families and individuals who may have had issues with the legal system or mental health problems stay in stable housing situations such as therapeutic foster care for at-risk teens or children, or group homes for people with substance abuse issues.

There are few options for the homeless in the area. Tedford Housing’s shelter in Brunswick is limited to providing adult shelter to 16 adults per night, and six families.

Of the 267 people provided housing through Tedford from July 1, 2012, to June 30:

— Four were older than 62;
— 23 percent were aged 18-24;
— 19 percent were 35-44;
— 28 percent were 45-61;
— 28 percent were 25-34;
— 135 were male;
— 39 were female.

The Adult Shelter also served 14 veterans — approximately 8 percent of the total served.

Tedford Housing Executive Director Craig Phillips said there are about 70 families currently on a waiting list seeking shelter.

He said the shelter does its best to find alternative emergency housing for adults and families in shelters in other parts of the state. Many families on the waiting list are staying with relatives, in cars or RVs, or in temporary hotel or motel rooms arranged by other organizations.

In addition to the emergency shelter, Tedford also supports some projects in which people can live in supportive housing, and helps with funding to prevent a family from becoming homeless.

The “Welcome Home” shelter that had been open in Rockport, the other nearest Mid-coast shelter, shut down last year. A local group is exploring ways to reopen it. Tedford also coordinates a program called the Merrymeeting Project for homeless teens who are still in the school system. Phillips said a coordinator with that program works with 60 to 70 homeless teenagers per year from School Administrative District 75, Regional School Unit 1 and Brunswick High School.

The citizens group aims to find long-term solutions that will put those who are homeless back on track by providing not only temporary housing, but also case management that will help them apply for services, get help with substance-abuse and mentalhealth issues, transportation and job search, and help them get into permanent housing.

Ryan, of Community Housing in Maine, said it’s clear that with appropriate support and stable housing, the formerly homeless can rejoin society.

“It costs less, in some cases far less, to house people than to leave them homeless where they ricochet through our most expensive systems of care — emergency rooms, police rescue, etc. Moreover, people get well when they are stable and they contribute to our economy rather than costing us all.”

Bath Initiative on Homelessness will meet again at 6 p.m. Monday, Nov. 25 at Bath City Hall. For more information call Bonnie Gerrard at 386-0510.

Tomorrow: A homeless teen shares his story.

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