Portland appears to have turned the tide when it comes to years of rising demand at its homeless shelters – at least temporarily.

From August through November, the number of adults and families admitted to city emergency shelters began trending downward for the first time in years. Shelter admissions dropped by 9.4 percent, from 1,819 individuals to 1,662 individuals, compared to the same four-month period in 2014.

The largest decrease was seen at the city’s Family Shelter on Chestnut Street, where admissions dropped 22 percent, from 662 individuals to 541, and the number of shelter beds used dropped 20 percent, from 20,752 to 16,544.

With homeless advocates noting an increase in the number of people who are choosing to sleep outside rather than in an emergency shelter, some may conclude that the city is simply turning people away, but city officials say that’s not the case. Instead, service providers and immigrant families are stepping up their efforts to keep people from entering the shelter in the first place and moving the chronically homeless into more stable living arrangements.

“We’re just really putting maximum effort into finding resources so people aren’t entering the shelter system,” said David MacLean, administrator of the city’s Social Services Division. “We don’t want people to enter the shelter system if we don’t have to.”

REDOUBLED EFFORTS

The city has redoubled its prevention and housing efforts after coming under fire by the LePage administration, which informed the city that it was upending a longstanding agreement to pay for the operational costs of the city’s shelters and would only reimburse the city for bed nights used by people who were financially eligible for General Assistance, a safety net program of last resort for people seeking food and shelter that is funded by the state and municipalities.

The administration also successfully changed the level of reimbursement for GA expenditures for communities like Portland, which typically received a 90 percent reimbursement but now receive 70 percent.

Meanwhile, the administration continues its efforts to cut off certain immigrants, including those fleeing violence and political persecution to seek asylum in America, from General Assistance.

In response, the city has been working on several fronts to move people out of the emergency shelter. MacLean said immigrant families have been volunteering to house other non-citizens, who consumed a growing percentage of the beds at the Family Shelter. In 2014, immigrants accounted for 30 percent of all intakes at the Family Shelter.

“We’ve had a lot of success working with the immigrant community,” MacLean said. “They’re stepping up and taking a larger role in assisting immigrant families.”

For other families, shelter staff members are working harder to identify family members or friends who can provide temporary shelter and working with landlords to prevent people who are on the cusp of homelessness from entering the shelter system.

The number of single adults seeking shelter has also decreased at the Oxford Street Shelter, which has 154 beds. Although the city still regularly uses a 70-bed overflow shelter at the Preble Street resource center, it rarely uses its General Assistance offices on Lancaster Street as a warming center.

The drop at the adult shelter can be attributed to a community-wide effort to find permanent housing and support services for people considered long-term stayers (those with 180 bed nights in one year), according to shelter director Angela Giordano.

Since April, the shelter staff has been meeting on a regular basis with nearly a dozen social service and housing providers to discuss ways to help the 70 long-term stayers, Giordano said. Groups working with the city include Preble Street, the Frannie Peabody Center, Milestone, the Shalom House, Opportunity Alliance, Catholic Charities, Amistad and the Portland Housing Authority. They have successfully placed about 50 people in housing, while connecting them to vital social services needed to keep them housed, whether it’s counseling for mental health or substance abuse issues or work training, she said.

Previously, “we were all sort of doing it separately,” Giordano said. “Now we’re looking at it as an issue we’re going to face and solve together and we’ve seen a steady decrease since we started this collaboration.”

Steve Ellis, a housing coordinator who has participated in the weekly meetings, said service providers have known about the benefits of collaboration for some time. But a recent shift in thinking toward providing supportive housing for the chronically homeless, as well as the prospect of closing the city-funded overflow shelter at Preble Street, was the catalyst for action, he said.

“All of the pieces were there and this sort of clicked the light on to what needed to (be) happening,” Ellis said. “The most rewarding and fascinating part of this for me is to see the system work for a person and not just a funding source.”

But advocates like Donna Yellen, the program director at Preble Street, which operates a soup kitchen and resource center, are worried that the progress can easily be undone by the city’s housing shortage and state policies. The LePage administration wants to scale back a new law that allows some noncitizens, including asylum seekers, to receive General Assistance, and Republicans are pursuing a statewide initiative to repeal that law through a statewide initiative.

“Those are those external factors that are beyond our control,” she said. “If those go through, it’s going to be just awful down here.”

AN INFLUX FROM OTHER COMMUNITIES

Meanwhile, the city is also stepping up efforts to get surrounding communities to pitch in for the cost of running its shelters, but so far it’s been a tough sell.

The Maine Sunday Telegram reported in May that Portland’s shelters were providing an increasingly regional service. An analysis of six years’ worth of shelter intake data showed that residents from communities throughout the state relied on Portland for emergency shelter, due to its capacity and low barriers for entry. Last year, people from other Maine communities accounted for 37 percent of the shelter intakes, compared to 32 percent in 2010.

The state’s GA law requires municipalities to provide emergency assistance when someone requests it and prohibits them from simply sending that individual to another city or town. If a receiving town can prove that someone seeking assistance was officially referred by another municipality, then it can seek a payment from the sending community.

The Maine Welfare Directors Association held a special meeting in September at the request of city officials to discuss the issue.

“The focus was really on Portland and how they’re trying to avoid taking on the responsibility for other communities,” said Vicky Edgerly, Biddeford’s GA administrator and the association’s secretary.

Jay Feyler, Union’s town manager and first vice president of the association, said that other GA administrators did not support taking on an additional financial burden for residents who previously lived in their towns, unless Portland could prove they were officially referred there by producing either a bus ticket or written referral, as stated in the law.

That issue aside, Feyler said, Portland is doing a better job getting people out of the shelters into housing, and he doesn’t think Portland is referring people to their other previous towns of residence.