Maybe you’re reading this while sitting on your couch wrapped up in a blanket. Or perhaps you’re still lying in bed, cozy under your comforter. As I write this – yes, cocooned in a blanket on my couch – I look out to the drizzle and the yellowing leaves dancing to the ground, propelled by a chilling wind. For thousands of Mainers, this weather isn’t just part of the fall aesthetic enjoyed through windowpanes, it’s a foreboding reminder that winter is coming and, with it, potentially deadly outcomes for those who are unhoused.

In the Portland area, concern about providing housing, food and other services to individuals experiencing homelessness has been a hot topic over the past several months. As we have grown accustomed to saying: COVID has brought about unprecedented times, and with them, a long list of heartbreaking consequences and challenges for our community members to navigate. An already-vulnerable population even in normal times, those experiencing homelessness are at even greater risk. We can change this situation and create a lasting impact on the wellness of our community. We need a solution for sustainable, permanent housing in Portland. And since a long-term solution will take time to manifest, we need to also provide a rapid response to house and support these individuals before the snow begins to fall and lives are at risk.

What can we do?

• Advocate for Preble Street’s shelter. There is currently insufficient adult day shelter in Portland. Preble Street remains closed because of COVID. Although the city has yet to approve renovating the center into a 40-bed 24/7 shelter for unhoused people who are not showing symptoms of COVID, it still can. Modeled after the successful temporary shelter operated last summer in the University of Southern Maine’s Sullivan Gym, the Wellness Shelter will not only provide a bed for each one of the 40 individuals housed there but also will pair them with a caseworker to support progress with seeking permanent housing and other goals.

• Advocate for temporary winter housing. The emergency shelter at the Portland Expo is slated to be closed by the end of this month, to be returned to the Red Claws, who still can’t play before a crowd. I am a big sports fan, but when weighing the choice between a team playing to an empty room or providing a means for housing people during a harsh Maine winter, the right choice is clear. And there’s more: In addition to continuing this initiative through the winter, Cumberland County could expand the number of beds by applying a similar model at the Cross Insurance Arena, currently sitting empty and unused.

• Advocate for long-term solutions. We can create lasting changes in Portland. By expanding resources for housing-first model programs, which operate with the idea that all people have the right to housing and that meeting basic human needs is a prerequisite to continued self-progress in other areas, we open up incredible opportunities for sustainable, permanent housing solutions. The housing-first model works – just ask one of the many tenants of the Avesta-funded buildings in Portland. 

Please take a moment to think about how different it would be if you were blanketed this winter by falling snow instead of the warm comforter on your bed. People experiencing homelessness are part of our community. Keep them in mind as you advocate to Portland city and Cumberland County officials. Ask our leaders to take action on three initiatives to support the homeless: first, approve plans to redesign the Preble Street space; second, sustain the Expo housing and utilize the Cross Insurance Arena in a similar manner through the winter; third, expand housing-first resources to provide additional housing for the long term. Ask Portland city and Cumberland County officials to take a hint from the seasons and embrace positive change. Now is the time to help our community members.

This commentary was edited at 4:25 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 20, to reflect that the city of Portland currently provides adult day shelter space.

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