SCARBOROUGH — The Scarborough Police Department is responding to what officials are describing as “an influx” in homelessness in town, with some data suggesting economic fallout from the coronavirus pandemic has led to a sharp increase in the number of people compared to last year.

Scarborough Police Social Services navigator Lauren Dembski-MartinDembski-Martin said from January through August of this year, the department had 30 calls indicating officers interacted with transients in some way. That’s double the number of similar calls recorded over the same period in 2019, she said.

Dembski-Martin also said she works directly with homeless people, their family members or service providers, and this year alone she said she interacted with 32 people concerning homelessness from January to March, while from April to the present day there have been 52 contacts – with a total of 30 interactions taking place in June and July alone.

“I have seen a marked increase because of COVID-19,” said Rene Daniel, who works for Scarborough, Windham and Gorham as the general assistance coordinator.

In a typical month, Daniel, who helps people navigate the federal program that offers help with rent and utilities, vouchers for food and other needed items, said he might get requests from 20-25 people, but since January the number has been going steadily up.

“By March, it was definitely worse,” he said.

Today, he said, he gets an average of 48-55 people asking for help, more than double what he is used to seeing. Many of them, he said, were working low-paying jobs in restaurants or cleaning services that laid off workers when the pandemic broke out.

“They’ve had a major decrease in their income,” he said.

Chris McDonald, 33, is homeless and living in a tent in a friend’s backyard, but he said he tries to keep upbeat. He may not make enough each week to build a plan for the future, but he said his living arrangement is “actually a pretty decent setup.”

McDonald declined to say exactly where he lives in Scarborough, only specifying “the Dunstan area.” He has been on his own since May, after ending a relationship and being unable to afford to live in an apartment on his own. He said he got some help from Project GRACE, a local nonprofit, which set him up in a hotel, but that only lasted about two weeks.

He works, doing manual labor for Westbrook-based Abatement Professionals, a company that cleans up hazardous materials such as asbestos, but he doesn’t earn more than $100 a week doing that.

“Pretty grueling work, but it is what it is,” he said.

Since McDonald has no car, he rides 12 miles to work on an electric bicycle, which he had to borrow.

“It’s been a struggle,” he said.

McDonald said he is looking for services that might be available, and of course, he wants to earn more at work, but for the moment, the nights are beginning to get colder, and he doesn’t have a plan for the future.

When asked what he thinks he will do, he said, “Right now, at this point, I really don’t know.”

An Aug. 18 statement posted in the town’s e-newsletter indicated Police Chief Robbie Moulton and Dembski-Martin have assembled care packages containing basic items such as water, snacks and toiletries, paid for by the United Way of Greater Portland’s COVID-19 Community Relief Fund.

Moulton and Dembski-Martin are distributing the packages to people known to be homeless in town. They are also giving them to officers to keep on hand during patrols in case they encounter homeless people. The idea, Dembski-Martin said, is to use the parcels to induce local homeless people to talk about their situations and needs.

“This certainly is no long-term solution to the growing homelessness in our town,” Dembski-Martin said. “However, I am hopeful as we circulate these bags we can also have genuine dialogues, helping to figure out other unmet needs and possible solutions.”

Sean Murphy 780-9094

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