Kevin Bellefountaine Sr., 59, is a homeless person living in Biddeford. City officials are discussing what they can do to address the growing number of people experiencing homelessness in a community that does not have a shelter. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Kevin Bellefountaine Sr. is used to being outdoors. At 59, he’s spent half his life “hitchhiking, bummin’ and freight-training” all over the country.

But something always draws him back to Biddeford, where he has spent the last six years living in a tent or hopping from couch to couch.

Last summer, he set up his tent near the Saco River, not far from an old railroad bridge he loves to visit and the train station where he can get Wi-Fi.

“I’m just a tired old guy living on the streets,” he says.

As fall gave way to winter, he tried to stay warm with two sleeping bags he picked up from the Seeds of Hope Neighborhood Center.

“Those two bags kept me from freezing to death on cold nights,” he said. “It’s a struggle surviving outdoors.”


When the cold got to be too much, Bellefountaine went to the warming shelter at Seeds of Hope, the only service of its kind in a city that does not have a homeless shelter but is seeing a growing number of people living outside or in cars. Seeds of Hope, which offers food and connections to resources, plays a critical role in the community. But it’s no longer enough.

Advocates, people without homes and city leaders all say Biddeford needs to take a hard look at what more can be done to provide stable housing and access to mental health and addiction treatment.

As the number of people without housing or on the verge of losing it grows, city staff members have worked to connect people with resources, find them motel rooms and apartments, and clean up areas where people are camping. But the time has come, says City Manager Jim Bennett, for the City Council to develop policies to address the issue.

“This will probably be one of the most difficult policy discussions this community has had in the past 10 years,” Bennett said last month during a council workshop on homelessness.

Biddeford for decades was a source of inexpensive, non-subsidized affordable housing, providing options for people “at or near homeless” to find rental units, according to city staff. The housing crisis in southern Maine coupled with the growing desirability of the city has pushed rental rates to historic highs.

“Those at the edges are likely finding it hard to find that roof over their heads. Low-income households that have lived in Biddeford for some time are now experiencing increasing housing costs and an increase in housing instability,” city staff wrote in a report for city councilors.


Guy Gagnon, executive director of the Biddeford Housing Authority, is blunt in his assessment of the housing situation in Biddeford: “It’s impossible.”

“I’ve never seen the vacancy percentage this low ever,” he said. “There’s just nothing, even if you have the money to rent.”

Over the past few years, the housing authority has fielded more and more calls from families that have lost housing — some are staying in cars or motels — and are unable to secure shelter. The city’s General Assistance office is working with a growing number of individuals and families to find emergency housing, while the city has provided portable toilets, dumpsters and helped with cleanups in outdoor areas staff describe as encampments. A team of social workers from the police department meets with people to try to knock down the barriers that keep them out of stable housing, usually related to mental health, substance use or both.

Unlike Portland, Biddeford lacks shelters. The only one in the county, York County Shelter Programs in Alfred, has limited capacity and does not accept anyone under the influence of drugs or alcohol or experiencing acute psychiatric distress.

The annual Point in Time surveys conducted by the Department of Housing and Urban Development have provided snapshots of homelessness in Biddeford, but don’t necessarily capture the full extent. This year’s survey, done in January, counted 24 adults who were unsheltered or in unstable housing, often referred to as couch surfing. That is roughly the same as in 2020, the last time the survey was done.

But homelessness in Biddeford became more visible during the summer of 2020, when staff counted eight to 10 known encampments inhabited by 30 individuals. Last summer, that number grew to 13 to 15 sites used by about 35 individuals. Somewhere between half and three-quarters of that population has since been placed in motels, according to the city, though at least five people are still living outside and relied on the Seeds of Hope warming shelter this winter.


City councilors indicated during a recent workshop that they want to explore ways to advocate for more services, get creative about housing options and address homelessness regionally. They say they also recognize that the issue is complex and that options like building a low-barrier shelter may not be viable for the community because of the cost or resistance to providing one.

“I think everyone realizes and understands this is a societal problem that goes beyond Biddeford and beyond the state, frankly. It’s nationwide. There’s not a ton we can do at the local level,” Council President Norman Belanger said. “What would be a mistake is to say ‘This is bigger than us, we can’t handle it,’ and do nothing. I think we need to step up.”


Bellefountaine, who was born in town at the old Webber Hospital, is a familiar face around Seeds of Hope, located in a former church on South Street. Sometimes he comes to get warm or to pick up supplies like his sleeping bags. Often, it’s to have a meal or check in with staff who helped connect him to services.

He works part time as a painter when he can, but health issues and a fall while working have largely sidelined him. He relies on food stamps and is in the process of applying for disability. When he asked for help, Seeds of Hope connected him with General Assistance and health care resources.

Two months ago, Bellefountaine moved into a room at the Thacher Hotel, paid for by General Assistance. He feels lucky to have his own bathroom and has become intrigued by the history of the old hotel in the center of downtown. He’s getting medical and mental health treatment, he said, and is optimistic that he’ll be able to follow all of the steps he needs to in order to secure stable housing.


Bellefountaine chokes up when he describes what it felt like to move out of his tent and into the Thacher: “A sense of hope. A sense of humanity.”

“I grabbed a little tiny thread off the end of the coat and I’m still hanging on,” he said. “You’ve got to try a little.”

The Rev. Shirley Bowen is the executive director of Seeds of Hope in Biddeford. City officials are discussing what they can do to address the growing number of people experiencing homelessness in a community that does not have a shelter. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer 

When Seeds of Hope Neighborhood Center opened in 2008, the Rev. Shirley Bowen’s goal was to put it out of business. But in the years since, she has seen more people than ever who are homeless, many struggling to find help for mental health or substance use problems.

“There’s a lot of desperation,” said Bowen, the center’s executive director.

Seeds of Hope employees and staff members from local service agencies meet people at the center to help with issues ranging from enrolling in MaineCare to getting an ID to finding a job. Breakfast, soup and clothes are always available.

On a typical day, 60 to 80 people come to Seeds of Hope, which served over 10,000 meals last year. More than 250 individuals used the center.


For the past three years, on nights when the temperature outside drops below 20 degrees, the community room becomes a warming shelter.

This winter was particularly hard, Bowen said. The warming shelter, funded by the city, was open for 54 nights and 225 extra daytime and weekend hours. Since Dec. 1, 49 individuals have used the shelter, some for a night or two, others every time it is open.

Bowen said the number of people staying every night decreased as winter went on because of local efforts to get Bellefountaine and others into temporary housing. She credits the city’s General Assistance staff, a team of community engagement specialists from the police department and York County Community Action Corp. with getting people into hotels and motels. The Biddeford Housing Authority has been able to provide stable housing in apartment buildings designated for people who have been homeless.

Jake Hammer, a community engagement specialist with the city’s police department, spends much of his time out in the community meeting people who are in crisis, struggling with a mental health or substance use issue, or who are currently homeless. He and other members of his team try to get them the resources they need, a challenge when there are limited options.

“The approach has to be tailored to the individual because every situation is different,” Hammer said. “Part of dignifying them is recognizing there is no one-size-fits-all option.”

One of the resources Hammer is able to connect people with is the federal Emergency Rental Assistance program administered locally by York County Community Action Corp., a Sanford-based agency with a range of health and social services programs. The temporary program, created during the pandemic to address housing challenges nationwide, provides assistance to low-income people to cover rent and utilities in order to prevent them from losing housing.


The agency has used the funding to provide about $25 million in assistance across York County in the past two years, a critical resource that has kept many individuals and families housed, said executive director Barbara Crider. The agency has spent about a quarter of its monthly ERA assistance, or roughly $721,000, to pay for motel and hotel rooms for 294 people.

That funding is set to end in October and people working to address housing issues need to start thinking now about what will happen then, said Crider, who believes the visibility of homelessness has highlighted the inadequacy of health and social safety nets.

“When it’s out of sight, out of mind, it’s easy to imagine that there is health care available for everyone and the social safety net is tightly woven and if you’re losing your housing, there would be resources for you,” she said. “That’s really not the case.”


During the City Council’s discussion of homelessness, Sgt. Steven Gorton described the reality of the challenges police face when they try to get people the help they need. The urgent need for people struggling with mental illness or substance use is to get them inside, he said.

“We need low-barrier or no-barrier emergency housing,” he said. “That’s what we see right now as the biggest in-your-face need.”


Mayor Alan Casavant said he believes the community is willing to take care of its own, but he questions what would happen if the city built a low-barrier shelter similar to the ones in Portland.

“Theoretically, if Biddeford had a shelter, it would become a magnet for everyone around us as well,” he said. “I say that because I think really it’s a state problem and the state has refused to address it.”

Councilor Amy Clearwater, whose ward includes downtown, said she wants to make sure the city is adequately engaging in conversation at the state and federal level to advocate for increases in needed services. At the same time, she said, the city needs to look at what can be done locally and get creative in its search for solutions. She said the influx of federal pandemic recovery money has given the city a “unique” opportunity to make progress.

“My constituents do support spending money on this. The people I talk to … who are interacting the most with very visible homeless population who have high needs, they ask me routinely when are we going to do something,” she said.

Councilor Doris Ortiz said she recognizes this is a “very difficult” conversation to have, but is a critical issue the city needs to address because it is going to get worse.” She does not feel that Biddeford has done enough.

“People need to have homes so they can have security, so they can get a job, so they can take care of their mental health,” Ortiz said.


She suggested Biddeford consider having a boardinghouse. It’s an idea liked by Bowen from Seeds of Hope, who says that “even affordable housing doesn’t work for someone if they’re only getting $900 a month.”

Councilor Liam LaFountain said he would like to look for regional solutions, particularly at a time when communities and counties have access to federal funding for pandemic recovery.

“It’s going to be one of the most difficult things we deal with because there’s no one real answer to this,” said Councilor Marc Lessard, now in his ninth term on the council. “My experience with it is the first thing you need to come up with is funding.”

Bowen, who chairs the local homeless task force, is encouraged by the the City Council’s desire to tackle the issue in meaningful ways.

“I think that folks are really understanding how big this is,” she said. “Yet no matter how big it feels, we have to do something. We can’t just say it’s too big, we can’t make a difference.”

Kevin Bellefountaine Sr. in Biddeford on March 24. City officials are discussing what they can do to address the growing number of people experiencing homelessness in a community that does not have a shelter. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Bellefountaine was relieved to hear about the city discussion, which touched on many things that have been on his mind in recent months.

“We need to make a change,” he said. “A lot of things aren’t being addressed properly, like mental health and addiction.”

One of the most important things Bellefountaine thinks the City Council should address is finding a way to give more folks a secure place to stay, like his room at the Thacher.

“It’s a lot easier to make things happen for yourself if you’ve got a place where you can say, ‘Phew, I don’t have to worry tonight,'” he said. “I can go home and I’m not going to freeze to death or starve to death.”

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