Regional efforts are ramping up to reduce homelessness and increase available housing in southern Maine, fueled by additional pandemic funding from the American Rescue Plan Act.

A consortium led by the city of Portland that includes Cumberland County and the town of Brunswick has been awarded $3.6 million in ARPA funding through the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Home Investment Partnerships Program.

That new money is in addition to the more than $4.5 million from the county’s $57.3 million ARPA allocation that has been earmarked to help build emergency shelters in Portland and Brunswick and conduct a study of emergency housing needs in the Lakes Region.

The city and county will host an online forum Tuesday to collect public input on how to use the HUD money, which they refer to as the Home-ARPA funding.

Pressing challenges include a growing homeless population that has overflowed Portland’s emergency shelters and filled several area hotels, and a pandemic-driven housing shortage that has put rents and mortgages out of reach for many Mainers.

“We’re hoping to get an on-the-ground perspective from people who have been directly affected,” said Mary Davis, Portland’s interim director of housing and economic development.

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“It’s not an isolated conversation anymore,” Davis said. “It is everyone’s problem and we all have to be working together to solve it.”

The meeting will be held via Zoom at 6 p.m. Written comments may be submitted to Davis via email at: [email protected]

Davis said city and county officials have already met with service providers and developers who are seeking a portion of the Home-ARPA funding. Getting public input is the next step.

“Not only is seeking public input a requirement of the program, it’s also a valuable resource for us in deciding how to allocate the funding,” she said.

A housing crisis that already existed has grown more acute and spread across the state during the pandemic, Davis said. A typical two-bedroom apartment in the Portland area costs about $2,000 a month, and the median single-family home price in Maine hit $299,000 in 2021, up 38 percent from $216,900 in February 2020.

Portland is providing emergency shelter to more than 1,150 homeless people, including asylum seekers coming from the southern U.S border. Untold other Mainers lack housing and are living in cars, tents and other makeshift circumstances.

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“It’s not just a Portland problem or a southern Maine problem,” Davis said. “It’s not just an affordability problem, it’s an availability problem.”

HUD’s Home program provides grants, loans and other subsidies through state and local governments to build, buy or rehabilitate affordable housing and give rental assistance to low-income people.

The Home-ARPA funding must primarily benefit low-income individuals and families who are homeless, at risk of homelessness, or in a vulnerable population.

Davis said city and county officials also have consulted with Portland’s Health and Human Services Department to learn what support services are most needed. Services that could benefit from the funding include transportation, substance use treatment, mental health counseling, legal aid, life skills or job training, food subsidies, child care and maternity care.

“This funding presents a unique opportunity because providing support services is often an area where there is a gap in resources,” Davis said.

But while funding is available, a tight job market is expected to make it challenging to fill positions in such programs, said Travis Kennedy, county spokesman.

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“We’re in this moment right now when we can help solve this problem, and a lot of organizations are eager to help,” Kennedy said. “But the human resources challenge may be bigger than the funding challenge at this point.”

The Cumberland County Commissioners already have dedicated a significant portion of the county’s $57.3 million ARPA allocation to homelessness and housing issues.  The county has received $28.65 million of its allocation, with a second $28.65 million expected to be released by May.

The commissioners have agreed to spend $16.9 million of the first disbursal on jail, courthouse, civic center and other county projects and programs, Kennedy said. The remaining $11.8 million of the initial funding round will be distributed in competitive grants that drew nearly 60 applicants with a wide variety of proposals, including affordable housing, child care, substance use treatment and public health.

In the second $28.65 million disbursal, the commissioners have committed $3 million to help Portland build a $25 million homeless shelter and services center. Portland had asked for $5 million to help build the 208-bed facility at 654 Riverside St. The city also plans to spend $3.5 million from its $46 million ARPA allocation on the center.

The project will expand on the city’s existing shelter program and provide wraparound services on site, including meals, medical care, counseling and access to public transportation.

The commissioners also agreed to spend $1.5 million of the second round to help Tedford Housing build a $7 million, 64-bed emergency shelter for adults and families near Cook’s Corner in Brunswick. Tedford had asked for $3 million. The agency’s application said it planned to contribute $4 million raised through a capital campaign and the sale of existing shelter space that is outdated and inadequate.

The county also will give Tedford more than $106,000 to study the need for an emergency shelter, transitional housing and other services for homeless and at-risk residents in the Lakes Region, an area northwest of Portland that includes Windham, Standish, Baldwin, Raymond, Casco, Sebago, Naples, Frye Island, Bridgton and Harrison.

“We’ve been researching this issue for a few years now,” said Jim Gailey, county manager. “There is definitely a need for a support system in the Lakes Region that will help people stay in their community with the support they need to secure permanent housing.”

The county will distribute additional competitive grants when the second round of ARPA funding is released.

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