Twenty-one percent of the people staying at the Oxford Street Shelter last year were 55 and over. Press Herald photo by Shawn Patrick Ouellette

PORTLAND — If Avesta Housing decides to build a facility on Brighton Avenue for homeless people 55 and older, it will be “just one piece of the puzzle” in assisting chronically homeless seniors in Portland, says Norman Maze.

“This is a population that is really in need of services. This kind of triage center and shelter is critically necessary,” said Maze, who is deputy director and housing director Shalom House, which provides services and housing to individuals with mental illnesses. “Living in the elements like that is putting a pretty big toll on their health.”

Avesta is looking into the possibility of building a tiered system – an assisted living facility, housing and an assessment center – for senior homeless people on city-owned land near the Barron Center, a site once considered for the city’s new homeless shelter.

The plan “is great, but it is not enough,” said Maze, because the need is so large.

Avesta has been fielding more and more calls for housing assistance from those 55 and older, according to Development Officer Greg Payne. In 2018, 1,400 people, or 35%, of those seeking housing through Avesta were in that demographic, he said. Maze said the population at Shalom House properties is also an aging one.

In the last calendar year, the Oxford Street Shelter has served close to 350 individuals 55 and older, according to Jessica Grondin, the city’s communications director. That is down from 372 in 2018, 422 in 2017 and 414 in 2016. Over the last four years, approximately 21 percent of those served at the Oxford Street Shelter were 55 or older.

Payne said the proposal, which Avesta is still studying, could help the chronically homeless 55 and older get back on their feet and out of the system.

Chronic homelessness can reduce a person’s age by 28 years, according to Mark Swann, executive director of Preble Street.

“We have a lot of experience in our Housing First projects serving chronically homeless people, allowing them to catch their breath and start to focus on some of the other challenges that they can’t face when they are vulnerable and without a home,” Payne said.

Housing First is an approach to provide permanent housing as quickly as possible to all homeless individuals and families, followed by providing services and addressing other needs.

The Avesta proposal, as it stands now, is to build a 36-unit assisted living facility, 30 units of independent-living housing and a 15-bed assessment shelter on the site.. In mid-December, the City Council gave Avesta the option to lease the property at 1250 Brighton Avenue until Oct. 1 to give the organization time to study the feasibility of the project.

The independent living building would operate similar to three other properties Avesta manages in the city: Florence House, which offers 25 efficiency apartments, 15 safe-haven beds and 10 to 25 emergency shelter beds for chronically homeless women; Huston Commons, which includes 30 efficiency apartments for homeless individuals with medical conditions and Logan Place, which offers 30 efficiency apartments for homeless individuals.

The site proposed, Payne said, would be a good place for housing this population because of its proximity to the Barron Center.

“There are other resources at the Barron Center for people who are seniors, and certainly there may be an opportunity for people from one of the pieces we are proposing to have access to existing programming there,” he said.

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