From left: James Myall from the Maine Center for Economic Policy; Cullen Ryan, director of Community Housing of Maine and Giff Jamison from Tedford Housing at Thursday night’s housing vulnerability panel at the Curtis Memorial Library. (HANNAH LACLAIRE/ THE TIMES RECORD)

BRUNSWICK — Daniel Ouellette has slept in his car the past two nights. He is on the waiting list for Section 8 housing, but the wait to receive it in Maine is about three or four years.

Ouellette, who attended Thursday night’s Housing Vulnerability and Homelessness panel at Curtis Memorial Library, is one of nearly 6,500 homeless people in the state of Maine. Last year alone, Tedford Housing in Brunswick turned away 354 individuals and 228 families for lack of space in its shelters.

Homelessness is at one extreme of the poverty cycle, explained panelist Cullen Ryan, executive director of Community Housing of Maine and chairman of the Statewide Homelessness Council. Maine’s poverty rate hovers at around 13 percent, and it’s a “system that keeps people trapped there,” he said.

Homeless people do not fit into one easy category. The vast majority of the homeless population are single adults who find themselves with temporary housing difficulties and might only be without a roof over their head for a few days at a time. Families, victims of domestic violence, unaccompanied youth, and people who are “long-term stayers” who have been in a shelter for more than six months, all present their own unique challenges and processes for finding housing, Ryan said. However, they all have one thing in common: “They experience poverty and experience low self-esteem … no one does well without housing and everyone does their best when they do have housing.”

In some states, doctors are writing prescriptions for housing, he said, because whether mental or physical illness, many of the problems are exacerbated without stable housing.

In many respects, Maine has not fully recovered from the 2008 recession, according to James Myall, a policy analyst for the Maine Center of Economic Policy and the “economy has not served low-income people very well,” he said. Nearly half of Mainers are living paycheck to paycheck, he said, with 45 percent of families not having enough money to cover a $400 emergency expense.
Wages are stagnant, he said, and have not been keeping pace with rising costs of living, notably increasing rent.

“This is not just an urban issue,” he said.

At Tedford, Director of Operations Giff Jamison is dealing these issues every day. The agency frequently turns people away due to sheer volume of need and overcrowding at shelters. Recently he received a call from a nurse whose patient was admitted with a mental health crisis. They had it under control, but she had been staying at the hospital for the past six days because she had nowhere else to go, Jamison said. There weren’t any open beds for her at Tedford, either.

Of the people Tedford can help, only 6 percent of those who transition to permanent housing end up back on the street, Jamison said. None of the families have ended up homeless again.

The people at Tedford try to act more like case managers than just a homeless shelter so they can connect people to resources. They have a homelessness prevention program and for people in housing, a Warm Thy Neighbor initiative which last year helped 122 families with emergency heating.

Tedford has been in a holding pattern, hoping to build a new facility. The project was stalled when city officials realized they didn’t have any ordinances permitting or regulating homeless shelters, even though Tedford has operated in Brunswick for decades. The town council placed a 6-month moratorium any such developments while it came up with rules, but recently extended that moratorium by up to another six months, saying it needed more time. Tedford said it can’t proceed with its expansion planning until those rules are ironed out.

One woman asked if they had explored the possibility of building tiny houses for homeless people, a practice which has gained traction in some communities across the country.

Ryan said that people who are homeless, when they do get into housing, generally do better in areas where they do not need to have a car and can walk to wherever they need to go. Those areas are generally already built up, he said, leaving little room for tiny houses. Additionally, it is better to get them out of a position where they are labeled as homeless — in an apartment, once they are settled, their neighbors may never know.

“We need to create more rental subsidies and affordable rentals,” he said.

Thursday was the first of three community conversations at the library this fall exploring local homelessness and housing insecurity. The next meeting is scheduled for 6 p.m. Oct. 30 and will discuss the “local landscape” and the third, 6 p.m. Nov. 29 will explore “promising practices.”

Then, in January, the library will also host action meetings to discuss what the community can do moving forward.

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