Recent changes at the state level are forcing Portland officials, legislators and homeless advocates to look for a better way to fund emergency shelters. Last week, a panel of state lawmakers endorsed the creation of a $2 million fund for emergency shelters, but it’s unclear whether the funding will be approved by the full Legislature and Gov. Paul LePage.

The city, meanwhile, is looking for ways to get other communities to chip in on the costs.

“This is an area that our new division director, David Mac-Lean, is going to pursue more aggressively because of the large number of individuals who come to Portland from other parts of Maine,” Dawn Stiles, the city’s Health and Human Services director, said in an email.

Since 2009, Portland has received only $33,500 for shelter stays from other communities. Most people have come from Westbrook and South Portland, with which the city has a formal billing agreement for residents staying at the Family Shelter on Chestnut Street. Other communities that have reimbursed the city include Sanford, Gorham and Falmouth.

The city has a formal memorandum of understanding that allows Westbrook and South Portland to refer homeless families to the city-run Family Shelter, provided they make arrangements in advance and they pay the costs. The agreement does not cover families from those cities who just show up at the shelter without a formal referral, or at the adult shelter at Oxford Street.

Stiles said Portland is just beginning to formulate a strategy, but it’s possible the city may seek similar agreements with surrounding communities for its adult shelter.

Westbrook Mayor Colleen Hilton said the city signed its original agreement with Portland because “it’s the right thing to do.”

“That cost should not be borne solely by the city of Portland just because they have a shelter,” she said.

Hilton did not answer a question about whether Westbrook would sign a similar agreement for the adult shelter.

General Assistance officials in Westbrook said they don’t refer homeless adults to Portland. However, Westbrook’s “contact us” page on the city website lists phone numbers to Portland’s shelters, including the two city-run shelters as well as shelters operated by nonprofit groups.

Sarah Lundin, Westbrook’s GA administrator, said the neighboring cities developed a plan for making sure that Portland doesn’t have to pay GA costs for Westbrook residents. Since that work in 2013, there have “zero referrals” back to Westbrook, Lundin said.

Mayors in other Maine communities said they would not be willing to help fund Portland’s shelters.

Lewiston Mayor Robert Macdonald said it would be “a cold day in hell” before Lewiston would provide funding for Portland’s shelters, even though 211 people who stayed at the shelter reported being from Lewiston – the fourth highest rate over the last six years.

“I don’t feel sorry for Portland. I think they brought it on themselves,” Macdonald said.

Macdonald said that Lewiston doesn’t send people to Portland for assistance – they go on their own accord. He said Portland often sends families of asylum seekers to Lewiston and only pays for the first month of expenses, whether it’s vouchers for housing, food or clothing.

Sue Charron, Lewiston’s GA administrator, said no families were relocated from Portland to Lewiston in 2014, but 11 families were sent there in 2013. Portland provides 30 days’ worth of funding for the relocated families, she said.

“After that 30-day period they become the responsibility of Lewiston,” she said.

Over the last six years, 228 Biddeford residents relied on Portland for emergency shelter – making it the third highest number of any other Maine community.

Biddeford Mayor Alan Casavant also doesn’t believe his city should be responsible for funding Portland’s shelters. He said Biddeford faces similar struggles, since it is also a community that offers services which are not available in rural towns. He believes shelters should be funded by the state. “In Biddeford, there are a lot of people who get welfare but they’re not from Biddeford, either,” Casavant said.

 


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