Portland’s weather forecast calls for frigid temperatures and snow showers overnight Monday, typical conditions for the official start of a Maine winter.

Another forecast for Monday predicts that there will be a record number of people who are homeless in the city, including dozens who will be camping out in the bitter cold, risking their lives during the longest night of the year.

We have grown used to the grim statistics of COVID, as we follow trends of new cases and death tolls to measure the progress of the pandemic. But lost jobs and shuttered businesses are also part of COVID’s cost, and we need to count rising poverty among the virus’ casualties.

Some people catch the virus and have only mild symptoms, while others need to be hooked up to a ventilator. Just as with the disease, the economic impacts are not evenly distributed.

Most Americans kept their jobs this year and don’t face eviction or foreclosure next month. Those with money on the stock market are ending the year in better shape than they started.

But the numbers of people seeking shelter and lining up at food banks show that the economic infection is spreading rapidly and causing terrible results.

One eye-popping piece of data is the number of meals served by Preble Street, a social service nonprofit that has been operating a soup kitchen in Portland for more than 30 years.

When COVID struck, Preble Street shut down its soup kitchen and day shelter to avoid the dangers posed by indoor gatherings. The organization began distributing meals to other shelters and places where people in need could be fed.

Despite the complications, Preble Street reports that it will serve 1.2 million meals this year, up from 640,000 in 2019. Their once-a-week food pantry has been expanded to five days. These numbers matter because food assistance is a leading indicator of rising poverty. People in crisis will seek help getting a meal long before they lose their home.

There are people in poverty in every Maine community, but about half of those who become homeless will end up in Portland.

With the state’s help, the city had a strong start in the early months of the pandemic. To limit the spread of COVID, it had to cut the capacity of the Oxford Street Shelter roughly in half, reducing it to 75 people a night. But it was able to make up for the loss of space by opening an auxiliary shelter in the Portland Expo and placing homeless families in vacant hotel rooms. And Preble Street opened a temporary shelter at the University of Southern Maine’s Sullivan Gymnasium that housed an additional 50 people. But progress has been slowed since then.

The Expo and the USM gym had to be returned to other uses. Portland couldn’t come to terms with Cumberland County over the use of a building on the county jail site. The city and state are expanding the use of hotel rooms to meet the overflow, but there are still Mainers who can’t or won’t go to the city’s shelter and are sleeping in doorways or behind bushes. As the temperatures drop, some of them are dying.

The long-range plan – building a larger new shelter on the city’s western border – is likely years away. The city has work to do designing the facility and the programs that would be offered in it. Paying for the building and the programs also must be worked out.

In the meantime, the Planning Board has moved slowly with a proposal to turn Preble Street’s closed day shelter into a 24-hour facility for 40 chronically homeless people. The plans were first submitted in June, but the process has been deliberate. A public hearing and possible vote by the Planning Board have finally been scheduled for next month.

The project has received pushback from neighbors who say they are fed up with concentrated poverty near their homes. They want services to be dispersed around the city.

Their frustration is understandable – it’s not right that one neighborhood should have to shoulder so much of a statewide problem. But forcing people to sleep outside on the coldest nights of the year can’t be the solution, either.

The economic forecast calls for more suffering, which is likely to get worse before it gets better. Just as with the pandemic, everyone needs to recognize that we are all in this together.

Related Headlines


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.