Volunteers Vicki McKinley and Denise Carmichael prepare a free public meal at First Baptist Church in Westbrook. More than 300 people were expected; the church has been serving an increasing number of meals since the onset of the pandemic. The free meals help alleviate financial strains, Pastor Scott Linscott said. Chance Viles / American Journal

A skyrocketing real estate market has slashed affordable options in southern Maine and pushed more Mainers into homelessness over the past two years.

Area agencies, including Westbrook’s General Assistance, the Opportunity Alliance and Preble Street in Portland, are reporting higher numbers of homeless families, especially working families who had never been homeless and now are living in motels, in their cars, or with family.

Kyla DiBiase, a working mother from Portland, left her home with her two sons, ages 3 and 5, due to ongoing concerns for safety.

“Availability is bad,” DiBiase said. “I was down to searching for one-bedroom apartments where the kids would share a room and I’d take the living room. That’s what I could afford.”

DiBiase and her sons had stayed for a while with her parents in Westbrook, but when tensions rose in that household, she decided to look for her own place to preserve her relationship with them.

For the past year, she and her boys have shared a room at the Super 8 motel in Westbrook, and she feels unsafe there.


The motel is frequently listed in Westbrook police logs as a place where drug busts and assaults occur. It also houses many chronically unhoused people that go through General Assistance or other local agencies, including those suffering from addiction and mental illness.

In addition to worrying about the safety of her family, DiBiase said it’s painful being deprived of everyday comforts she once took for granted.

“We grocery shop daily because there’s a tiny fridge,” she said. “I think that would be the hardest part, not being able to cook them a meal or have a table to sit down at.”

The three mainly eat microwaved food while sitting on their beds.

The stigma of homelessness weighs heavily.

“It’s just a little shameful working with (General Assistance) because your money goes to them, you get vouchers, and that’s an embarrassing part,” DiBiase said. “You are in the grocery store line with a ton of people behind you, and you’re paying with a voucher, taking forever.”


Director Harrison Deah says Westbrook’s General Assistance program’s soaring expenditures for motels or other emergency shelters reflect only some of the growing homelessness problem. Not accounted for are those being helped by other means. Chance Viles / American Journal


Westbrook’s General Assistance program’s expenditures for motels or other emergency shelters have skyrocketed in the two years since the pandemic began in March 2020, according to Director Harrison Deah.

From 2010-2020, General Assistance paid out $12,850 for emergency accommodations at motels and other rentals for 23 cases involving 58 people, Deah said. Since March 2020, it has spent $107,000 in direct emergency shelter assistance on 50 cases involving 87 individuals.

At the same time, these numbers don’t show the whole picture of new homelessness.

“They do not account for those at risk or (those) experiencing homelessness being assisted through other means,” Deah said.

The pandemic has also hurt those seeking apartments through Westbrook Housing Authority’s housing choice voucher program. The shortage of affordable rentals means “voucher-holders are having a difficult time leasing,” Housing Authority Director Chris LaRoche said.


Trying to find an apartment during the shortage leads to more application fees for those who already are struggling financially.

“(If) a low-income household that has a voucher needs to apply to 10 different apartments, and each charges an application fee of $25, then that (voucher) holder needs to find $250 just to submit all of those applications,” LaRoche said. “This, in itself, is a major impediment for many low-income households to find an apartment.”

Scott Linscott, a pastor at First Baptist Church in Westbrook, says he has witnessed the rise in unsheltered people in the community. He’s “seeing people who’ve had apartments for years suddenly living in their cars,” he said.

As the number of homeless families rises, so does the number of homeless students.

Westbrook schools have seen more students struggling with homelessness during the pandemic, according to the district’s homeless coordinator, Katie Garrity. Her department identified 95 homeless students as of the end of January, roughly 30 more at this time of year than before the pandemic.

Garrity believes those numbers are underreported. The stigma of being homeless can be more difficult for families who are homeless for the first time, she said.


“I can’t give the exact numbers, but we have quite a few kids in hotels,” Garrity said. “We don’t have any unhoused like in a car, that we know of, but most people are in a hotel or doubled up with someone they know, which is incredibly stressful.”

The length of time a person or family experiences homelessness has also increased.

Prior to the pandemic, a homeless person in the Greater Portland area would find housing within three months on average, according to Westbrook General Assistance, The Opportunity Alliance and Preble Street. Today, it may take six months to a year.

“Because of this change in our housing market, we can no longer get people houses as quickly as we used to be,” said Preble Street Deputy Director Donna Yellen, who also reported a six-month to one-year wait.


The shortage of affordable housing and its consequences can be blamed in large part on property values and sale prices in Greater Portland. Both have soared with “unprecedented growth,” nearly doubling in some cases, said Joe Vitalius of Vitalius Real Estate Group in Portland. Vitalius has tracked property values and sales in southern Maine for years.


Owners of apartment buildings in Westbrook are seeing values increase more than 50%, Vitalius said, and that prompts more building sales. An average year, pre-pandemic would see at most a 2%-3% growth in value.

Similarly, Saco saw a 25% increase in property value with its multi-units, while South Portland’s multi-unit property value grew 30%.

The number of sales has gone up more than 50% in the past year as well, according to Vitalius’ data, and unlike typical years new development is not driving the sales.

“It’s renovations,” Vitalius told the American Journal. “The change is, these towns have old tenement buildings that were not fixed up, so you see transformation there.”

When owners sell to take advantage of the higher prices, new owners, knowing they can get higher rent, renovate. When the rent goes up, their current tenants often can’t afford it and are priced out of their homes.

The Opportunity Alliance, which has community programs statewide, also points to rising property values and sales as the major factor for the increase in homelessness in Cumberland County, and especially in Westbrook, according to Mary Cook, programs director. The agency works frequently with the city’s General Assistance clients.


“Our rent prices are increasing consistently,” Cook told the American Journal in a phone interview. “People can’t afford to live in the communities they work in anymore. I’m a privileged white woman and I can’t afford to live in Portland, and I work there.”


Advocates see a long uphill battle ahead.

Linscott at the First Baptist Church and Preble Street Director Mark Swann think an increase in funding and resources is immediately necessary to even start turning the tide of housing availability.

Funding could help increase subsidies, they said, but Swann also sees the need for more guidance for those looking for housing.

“If you are a poor person, you are trying to navigate a myriad of complex systems, many of which are decades old, many of which are set up for middle-class people who have time and capacity and flexibility to do those navigations,” he said.


For DiBiase, the struggle with homelessness will soon come to an end after a year of trying to find housing. The nonprofit Avesta Housing approved her application for an apartment in Westbrook weeks ago. A move-in date hasn’t been set and she is anxiously waiting to get it.

“I’ve tried to keep a positive attitude, stay humble,” DiBiase said. “Some people out there do have it worse.”

She looks forward to having a more secure environment and a real kitchen to cook for her children, and said she feels pain for the many other families still struggling to find a place.

“It’s a huge pressure off my shoulders,” DiBiase said. “I feel like I can resume with my life now.”

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