The Red Bank Community Center is one of the few public shelters that serves as warming or cooling center for individuals, including the homeless, who are looking for shelter from harsh weather conditions. The COVID-19 pandemic has forced some public spaces, like the library, to limit the number of people allowed inside or shut down entirely. Catherine Bart/Sentry

SOUTH PORTLAND — The city council agreed that there needs to be long-term and short-term planning that involves an interdisciplinary approach to homelessness in South Portland.

The city has always shown a commitment to the treatments and prevention of homelessness, Councilor Sue Henderson said, but she felt that the city should create a new committee, or a commitment to further action, to allow an interdisciplinary approach to the problem.

On July 7, the council held a public workshop, with various speakers and advocates, bringing forward the biggest problems homeless individuals are facing, especially in the COVID-19 pandemic.

While homelessness is an issue that always exists, pandemic or not, Robert Liscord, a South Portland resident who was co-chair of the Maine Homeless Veterans Committee in 2017 and 2018, told the council that in 2019, with an unemployment rate of 3 percent in Maine, the Greater Portland area saw 900 evictions. As of April of this year, that rate has jumped to 10 percent.

“COVID-19 has changed and impacted these numbers,” Liscord said. “When the state closed down, the first directive we got was to shelter in place and stay at home. If you don’t have a home, you have no place to be able to shelter in place and do what’s most safe in response to COVID-19.”

The pandemic has also shut down many public facilities that homeless people rely on for basic services like internet access, device-charging ports, and hand-washing stations, he said. In a time where washing hands and maintaining good hygiene is emphasized, many homeless Mainers can’t always do so.

Liscord also said that there is a disproportionate number of homeless people of color, including black and indigenous people, in Maine, which has a 5 percent population overall but makes up 33 percent of the homeless population in Maine.

In order to address the problem and provide assistance, support services and infrastructure are the two biggest  components that need to make up solutions, Liscord said.

“As the council thinks about how to move forward, I think it’s important to recognize that homeless services and prevention work is really at its best when there’s community level regional and state level coordination across multiple sectors,” he said.

Shelters cannot be the only focus either, Benjamin Martineau, an advocate for Homeless Voices for Justice, said.

Martineau was homeless for five months a few years ago, he said. In that time he was sleeping in a crowded shelter, in between people who often lacked personal hygiene practices.

He said that he utilized social services like Maine Vocational Rehabilitation Associates, Mercy Internal Medicine, and Catholic Charities.

“They helped me maintain a healthy living,” he said. “Without them, I would probably be back on the street.”

A grassroots organization, Homeless Voices for Justice has chapters in Augusta, Brunswick, Lewiston, and Portland, according to its website, and the group is led by people who have experienced homelessness, advocating for homeless individuals and working toward social change.

“Homeless Voices for Justice believes that the people impacted by any policy change or program development must be at the core of the decision-making process,” Martineau said. “The average person’s idea of what it’s like to be homeless is vastly different from the actual experience.”

Councilor April Caricchio, who said that she’s had two experiences with homelessness, agreed that homeless voices need to be a big part of the approach and discussion.

She also put an emphasis on the need to prevent homelessness, as many homeless individuals are ashamed of the negative stigma attached to their situation, and for that reason they often do not seek out resources.

Cheryl Hopkins, another Homeless Voices for Justice advocate leader at the workshop, suggested a few short-term solutions for the council to consider, including a 25-person shelter on city property, a hub like a bus stop for people to warm up in the cold weather, and washing stations for individuals to maintain good hygiene.

The city can help keep people from sleeping outside in the short-term, Councilor Deqa Dhalac said.

“We know that affordable housing is a must and will take a while because the wait list is so long,” she said. “I agree on the wraparound services. As a city we have a lot of buildings that we can use now — that’s the short term. If we can get some beds or mattresses, we can prevent at least 25 people from camping outside … We need to set up washing spaces. When you’re clean you feel healthy, but (the homeless) do not have that right now.”

Councilor Misha Pride also said that he supports warming and hygiene stations.

In the long-term, major changes to the state’s way of doing homeless shelters need to change, said Chris Hall, director of regional initiatives for the Greater Portland Council of Government.

“If you want to open up a 25-person shelter in South Portland, you’re going to need money, and obviously, you’re dealing with budget constraints, so the question becomes how do we prioritize that resource?” he said.

Although South Portland has an Affordable Housing Committee, Henderson said that she believes the work that needs to be done may require a different committee.

Councilor Katelyn Bruzgo agreed with Henderson and said she supports an ad hoc committee.

The next step will be to work with Councilor Henderson on an idea for the ad hoc committee’s roles and then bring a proposal forward to the council for approval, City Manager Scott Morelli said.

“We would continue our regional efforts with the Metro Coalition and GPCOG,” he said. “I know there are other things folks brought up about — warming centers and things like that. That would be something we should definitely prioritize with this group when they start working as to recommendations. We do now offer those types of things, and we do have public buildings … I think charging the committee to looking at some low-hanging fruit should be their first steps.”

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