COVID has thrown into sharp relief what Maine homeless providers and advocates have known for decades: We need a better system to prevent and respond to homelessness. Now, we have the chance to make it happen – and a defined path forward.

The path forward is a redesign of Maine’s homeless response system around what we as a state value: help and compassion for our most vulnerable fellow Mainers, dignity in service provision, knowing that all people deserve a safe home, and believing we can end homelessness if we work together.

Our goal is to build a system that makes homelessness rare and brief. This is known as building for zero. To build for zero, we have to work to prevent homelessness and develop the resources and supports to get people the help they need quickly and effectively. We must shift the current fractured system to service hubs so people across Maine have equal access to rapid rehousing, affordable housing and permanent supportive housing resources in their community. Service hubs will also help reduce the pressure on organizations serving people who are homeless in Maine’s population centers.

This will take an up-front investment of time and resources. It may take several years. In the meantime, it is imperative that we continue to ensure Maine people have a safe place to go if they do not have a home. Shelters play a vital role in the homeless service system. Without adequate shelters, Maine would see an exponential rise in encampments and people sleeping outside. Shelters provide emergency shelter, case management and housing navigation assistance, critical to people ending their homelessness.

We cannot and will not eliminate emergency shelter beds until we reduce the need. However, whether or not we eliminate emergency shelter beds is not the conversation we need to be having. We do not have the right system to prevent and respond to homelessness effectively. We must focus on how we get out of constant crisis management and get to effective prevention and response. It is achievable. It is what Maine people need and deserve.

In the midst of COVID crisis response, more people and organizations than ever are moving this effort forward. Together, the Statewide Homeless Council and MaineHousing invested in the first step. We now have a report that provides us with comprehensive, concrete ways in which Maine can better align its homeless service system to achieve the goal of ending and preventing homelessness.

As a result, Maine has joined the national Built for Zero initiative to learn from communities around the country that have been successful in decreasing homelessness. This initiative will help us implement the report’s recommendations and change how Maine serves people experiencing homelessness. We will work toward making the proper investments in affordable housing and standardizing proven practices across Maine. We will work toward necessary policy changes to ensure that our system is cohesive and responsive. We will use proven practices and data-driven decisions as we shift from crisis reaction to response, and then to prevention and response.

We know these solutions will take time, money, hard work and people working together. It will require hard conversations about addressing racial disparities and equal distribution of resources. And, we are an intrepid group of providers, advocates, people with lived experience, funders and policy makers who have always believed that a Maine where homelessness is rare and brief is possible. We have a unique moment to build on the momentum of the COVID-fueled state and national homeless reckoning because it is the best and right thing to do.

Homelessness is a big problem that requires bold and deliberate action. We have the data, the strategy and the grit. Now is the time to forge the path forward – together.

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