A new report prepared for MaineHousing recommends committing more money to housing “diversion” programs to reduce the need for shelter beds as part of a regional, service-hub approach to reducing homelessness in the state.

As part of an initiative to “re-design” Maine’s response to homelessness, a national consulting firm held more than 60 virtual listening sessions since last July with key stakeholders. The firm, the Corporation for Supportive Housing, found an over-reliance on shelters and transitional housing that have the “poorest outcomes” for people facing homelessness for the first time.

Instead, the report recommends a more uniform, statewide approach and continued work to create nine regional “service hubs” to coordinate housing and social services offered by public and private agencies in the region.

The report also calls for tapping into additional resources – including more than $20 million earmarked to Maine and cities in the recent federal stimulus package from Congress – for, among other things, one-time financial assistance or other services to “divert” people from ever entering the shelter system.

The report notes that 74 percent of all entries into a statewide data-tracking system, known as the Homeless Management Information System, are facing homelessness for the first time, which presents a “significant opportunity” to divert them.


“Experiencing homelessness is a traumatic event with long-term effects on well-being and health outcomes,” the report states. “Therefore, diversion programming aimed to prevent entry to shelter in the first place is a critical component to a high-performing homeless response system. Maine can strengthen its system by implementing a coordinated diversion program at the state and local service hub levels.”

The report’s authors estimated that increasing diversion programs could allow the state to reduce the number of shelter beds statewide by 347 and decrease transitional housing units by 329.

But Aaron Geyer, the city of Portland’s social services director, said he’s concerned that the data in the Homeless Management Information System does not include people who are being housed in hotels using General Assistance. Portland has dramatically increased its use of hotel rooms throughout the pandemic as a way to reduce crowding and allow for physical distancing in shelters.

“I think that was very surprising to us, because of course during the pandemic we have seen increases” in demand for emergency housing, Geyer said.

Geyer said the report’s goal of diverting from shelters 70 percent of people facing homelessness for the first time is unrealistic. He pointed out that the Pine Street Inn’s program in Boston is seen as successful and diverts only 18 percent from the shelter.

Geyer said the reduction in shelter beds seems to depend on stronger diversion programs. But people can be diverted only if they have someplace to go, a problem that will likely be exacerbated when the pandemic-era moratorium on housing evictions expires. So Geyer doesn’t believe the goals can be met until more housing is built, but there isn’t funding for that many units.


“It’s really a long-term, aspirational plan with a hefty price tag,” he said. “There’s going to be that interim period where we’re going to need those shelter beds.”

Cara Courchesne, spokeswoman for MaineHousing, said the report is the first step in the process of redesigning Maine’s system for responding to homelessness. Courchesne said the agency, which is an independent state authority focused on affordable and safe housing, is reviewing the report’s “extensive and multifaceted” recommendations.

“The recommendations are potential goals for Maine to move this work forward,” Courchesne said in a statement. “We know there is concern related to reducing the number of shelter beds and want to be clear: it will take several years and significant investment to achieve this goal. A range of investments would need to be in place – including substantial increases in affordable housing, in permanent supportive housing, and in rapid rehousing resources. In the meantime, we are excited this work is moving forward and are looking forward to continuing to review the recommendations with our partners, and to improve Maine’s response to homelessness.”

The report also calls for increased staffing and training for the state’s 2-1-1 helpline so that people calling with housing emergencies can be routed to the best assistance programs within their service hub to avoid going to a shelter.

Another recommendation that would require policy changes (and funding) would be to require that affordable housing developers set aside a certain percentage of units for “supportive housing,” which provides subsidizing housing and wraparound social services for vulnerable populations.

Greg Payne, director of the Maine Affordable Housing Coalition and development officer at the affordable housing developer Avesta Housing, said such a significant change would require substantial discussion. Payne noted that the federal stimulus funds under the American Rescue Plan will flow for only the next few years and that any state legislative initiative, as the report suggests, would require funding.

“Many housing providers in Maine would like to provide more supportive housing, but the services have to be funded, in place and available to tenants or things tend to go sideways,” Payne said.

Staff Writer Randy Billings contributed to this report.

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