Maine has an emergency shelter crisis that requires action before the Legislature completes its work for the year.

Ground zero for this crisis is the city of Portland, where a stressed human services department is struggling to keep up with the number of people in need who are presenting themselves on a daily basis.

But it would be a grave mistake to think of this as Portland’s problem. Without swift action by the Legislature, the city will not be able to keep up with demand for services and the impact will be felt statewide.

After two years of economic disruption and social isolation, providers are experiencing record demand for basic human services from chronically homeless people as well as people who have recently lost their housing. At the same time, hundreds of asylum-seeking immigrants are making their way across the southern border of the United States and coming to Maine in the hopes of starting a new life. Many are the kind of motivated hard workers who Maine employers say they cannot find enough of, but they are temporarily prevented from working.

At issue is the state’s general assistance law, which requires cities and towns to “come to the immediate aid of person who are unable to provide the basic necessities,” such as food and shelter. The municipality pays for the services and is reimbursed for 70 percent of its costs by the state.

Historically, people are supposed to go to their own town or city office for general assistance, but because jobs, apartments and social services are clustered in Portland, the city processes general assistance requests from people who come from all over Maine, as well as from people who are new to the state. Currently the city houses people in 12 hotels in six different communities, in addition to its own Oxford Street Shelter and family and overflow shelters.


During the pandemic, Portland’s outlay for general assistance has grown progressively. In the fiscal year that ended June 30, 2020, the city’s program cost $8.7 million. The next year, costs rose to $17.2 million. In the first eight months of the current fiscal year, general assistance expenditures exceed $19 million. During the pandemic, the Federal Emergency Management Agency has covered the 30 percent of the total, but that money will run out in June. If nothing happens, the city’s share next year would be $6 million.

That’s too much for a relatively small group of local property taxpayers. And, as we have said before, this is not a local problem.

A bill filed by Portland Rep. Michael Brennan would increase the state’s share of general assistance to 90 percent, which would take care of part of the problem, but the state should go further.

The city is also calling on the state to take over some of the resettlement for asylum seekers, possibly through a contract with a nonprofit agency like Catholic Charities, which has a contract with the federal government to work with refugees in Maine.

And, in a letter to legislators, Portland interim City Manager Danielle West called on the state to work through MaineHousing, the state’s housing authority, to develop temporary housing to replace the use of expensive hotel rooms.

The city is not looking to abandon its responsibility. Late last month it broke ground on a 208-bed homeless service center, a $25 million facility that will be financed through a 25-year lease. The new building will combine emergency shelter with services and support aimed at getting people into permanent housing.

But that facility won’t be in operation for more than a year. Maine – not just Portland – has an emergency shelter crisis right now, and the Legislature should do something about it before it adjourns for the year.

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