News that two South Portland hotels would stop serving individuals experiencing homelessness in Maine is the latest unfortunate and discouraging sign of Maine’s affordable-housing crisis. Sadly, this is what a housing crisis looks like up close.

A homeless person rests at the entrance of a downtown Portland office building. A recent Statewide Homeless Council study found that the average daily cost of supportive housing for people who face persistent homelessness, about $33, is a small fraction of the cost of keeping somebody in jail, about $900. It’s also far less expensive than secure institutionalized care, which can cost $3,000 or more a day. Robert F. Bukaty/Associated Press

The understandable concerns of the hotels’ neighbors combined with an uptick in calls for emergency services and fear that the city’s vibrant business district and residential neighborhoods will be tarnished by homeless individuals, many of whom are wrestling underlying and costly mental health or substance use problems, prompted the hotels owners to pull the plug.

Of course the question of what comes next for the 290 people now living in the hotel rooms in South Portland is a top concern. It also accentuates the need for increased development of affordable housing, including supportive units with skilled staff trained to deal with the complex array of issues that lead to long-term homelessness.

The only option for many in this population, other than the streets or the woods, have been hotel rooms – not an ideal situation for an individual with complex health and mental health problems, but it’s better than the alternative.

Our federal and state leaders, prompted in large part in response to COVID-19, have provided us funding to use hotel rooms for lodging. Before and during this pandemic, a handful of hotel owners and managers have stepped up to help, offering otherwise-unused rooms. Forgoing the risk their generosity could cause, they’ve willingly agreed to help put people in beds instead of cardboard boxes or tents.

The operators of the hotels in South Portland, who were criticized mightily as being unaccountable to their neighbors, deserve great praise for being accountable to their fellow man.


They and others like them who have offered spaces for those in need are the unsung heroes in many respects. We thank them all and those yet known who will step up to help.

Sometimes a hotel room, an apartment or even a house is not enough when a mental health or substance use crisis sets in. We need to both increase the number of affordable-housing units that are available to rent in Maine and expand our ability to treat and stabilize those facing crisis with supportable housing; similar to the recently opened Freedom Place development in Portland. Our move to deinstitutionalize the care of those with chronic and persistent mental health issues was done in kindness and concern for the humane treatment of our fellow Mainers. But doing so without first having adequate and supportive systems in place for that transition has compounded suffering and costs in many cases.

Consider a recent Statewide Homeless Council study and report to the Legislature on the 200 or so people who face persistent and ongoing homelessness. It found the average daily cost of supportive housing, about $33, is a small fraction of the cost of keeping somebody in jail, about $900. It’s also far less expensive than secure institutionalized care, which can cost $3,000 or more a day.

Statewide acknowledgment that this ongoing housing crisis will not solve itself and is not only one city’s problem is paramount. Many municipal leaders, both elected and appointed, have recognized the need to do their part to resolve this crisis. From changing restrictive zoning to contributing municipal resources or tracts of valuable land for new and creative affordable development, they are true leaders working shoulder-to-shoulder with MaineHousing to provide solutions.

Still, sadly, too many officials and citizens of Maine believe the issue, the problem and the people can be pushed off to the next community over – living in ongoing denial that homelessness affects them. For elected leaders, those sworn to work for the common good, this is a dereliction of their basic duties and a betrayal of the trust put in them by voters and taxpayers when you add up the compounded costs of an ongoing crisis compared to proactive solutions.

Now more than ever is the time for all Mainers, especially all who sleep in a warm, safe bed at night, to ask themselves if they are doing all they can.

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