AUGUSTA — A bill designed to increase state funding to Maine homeless shelters received approval from a legislative committee Tuesday.

The proposal, L.D. 443, is sponsored by Sen. Justin Alfond, D-Portland, and backed by many of the operators running 42 shelters statewide. The Labor, Commerce, Research and Economic Development Committee supported the bill, 9-2, but not before making some changes to garner a bipartisan endorsement.

The original bill proposed providing $3.5 million in state funding to relieve financial pressure and, in some cases, prevent further closings of emergency shelters. However, the version of the bill approved by the committee Tuesday would provide $2 million in state funding.

During a March 17 public hearing, advocates for shelters noted that the state appropriated only $364,000 in direct funding. That includes two city-run shelters in Portland, where state budget changes are forcing the city to consider closing an overflow emergency shelter.

In addition to increased funding, the version of the bill approved by the committee Tuesday would create a new shelter for human trafficking victims. The issue has been a focus of Sen. Amy Volk, R-Scarborough, who co-chairs the labor committee and voted to support the bill on Tuesday.

The amendment also proposes to use funds from Maine’s share of a $1.37 billion legal settlement against Standard & Poor’s if the state’s Department of Health and Human Services funding for the bill is inadequate.


The Maine piece of the Standard & Poor’s settlement, $21.5 million, is one of many conflicts between Gov. Paul LePage, a Republican, and Attorney General Janet Mills, a Democrat. LePage has submitted legislation that would wrest control of the settlement money from Mills, but it faces long odds in the divided Legislature.

It’s unclear if the shelter funding proposal will win the backing of the governor, who rarely comments on legislation until the final version reaches his desk.

Nonetheless, advocates for L.D. 443 have said the bill is required to prevent shelter closings or reductions in services. Currently, they argue, the facilities lean on a patchwork of funding and private donations to serve clients who are often suffering from mental illness or substance abuse or fleeing domestic violence.

The legislation was submitted before the LePage administration began pressuring Portland to stop using General Assistance funding to reimburse stays at the two city-run homeless shelters. However, Alfond has said that he hopes the debate over the state’s initiative will illuminate the challenges faced by struggling shelters.

In March, he said the focus on Portland has highlighted that “General Assistance was never intended to fund shelters on a daily basis,” but more importantly, that shelters are inadequately funded.

“No one chooses to be homeless,” he said. “Our shelters serve as the last line of defense for the neediest among us. The purpose of this bill is to provide a dedicated and stable funding source to ensure that our most vulnerable Mainers have a safe place to sleep at night.”


Annual point-in-time surveys conducted each January show that the overall homeless population in Maine was 2,726 people in 2014, a decline from 3,016 people in 2013 and roughly equal to the 2,769 people in 2005. Those figures include people in emergency shelters, transitional housing and outdoors, with no shelter at all.

The emergency shelter population increased by 50 percent in the past decade, climbing from 731 in 2005 to 839 in 2009 and to 1,102 in 2014, according to HUD. The agency also found that Maine has one of the lowest percentages in the nation of people with no shelter at all, at 3.4 percent.

Mark Swann, executive director of Preble Street in Portland, said that on any given night the state’s 42 shelters are housing roughly 1,000 Mainers. He told lawmakers during the public hearing that shelter operators were desperate for state funding assistance.

According to a budget report by the state housing authority, a quasi-public agency, emergency homeless shelters received $500,000 in state funding beginning in 1988. Budget cuts have steadily reduced the subsidy to $364,000 last year. The housing authority also provides $2.8 million to the shelters through what’s called the House Opportunities for Maine Fund, or HOME. However, that fund was originally created by the Legislature in 1983 to provide long-term affordable housing, not emergency shelters.

The funding struggle is particularly acute in Portland. A state audit in 1985 eventually led to a billing arrangement between the city and the state that allowed Portland to tap General Assistance funds to pay for shelter stays. At the time, Portland had one homeless shelter with 53 beds. But it became a destination for the state’s mentally ill as the state began shrinking the size of its mental health facilities.

The agreement was a settlement to a political dispute that surfaced again in February.

In fiscal year 2013-14, the state paid for all but $28,000 of the $2.7 million it cost to run Portland’s two shelters and overflow facilities, most through General Assistance.

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