Rev. Shirley Bowen Derek Davis Photo/Portland Press Herald

BIDDEFORD — Rev. Shirley Bowen laid out the numbers — the increases in requests for help finding housing, and few available answers, increases in the number of new people the agency she serves sees and more —to the Biddeford City Council.

“We’ve gone from one family calling a week looking for housing to one a day, and sometimes up to five calling, and they are desperate and sobbing on the phone,” said Bowen, of Seeds of Hope Neighborhood Center. “These are families, and they have no place to go.”

She said in 24 hours, she had emails from two different families, one a mother of four, and one a mother of five, including a child with special needs, looking for housing.

“And we had no answers for them,” she told the City Council on June 21 — the same night the council approved a resolution requesting the state increase its involvement in the quest for better outcomes for people with no roof over their head. “The reality is there is nothing available, even if people had funds, there is no place for them to go and this is a crisis. … I don’t use the term lightly. People are becoming desperate.”

Housing costs, especially for  rental housing, are increasing at rates exceeding inflation, the city’s resolution notes, which, it said, can lead to other issues.

Bowen, who also serves on the Mayor’s Affordable Housing Task Force,  spoke of the increases in the numbers of people she and others see at Seeds of Hope, where people drop in for a meal, and seek help applying for jobs, accessing government services, health promotion and education. The center provides advocacy for veterans and for those who are homeless.


In April, the neighborhood center served 699 meals and saw 44 new people who had not been in before. In May, the center served 741 meals and saw another 44 new people, she said. As of June 21, with several days in the month remaining, the center served 582 meals, with 30 individuals new to the center.

“Of those we know about in unstable housing, there are 31 who are either camping or just on the streets and two  came in today — up 11 since last week,” she said. “Ten are sleeping at the train station, 13 couch surfing, up by four from last week; six are sleeping in their car or recreational vehicle, up one from last week; and seven are staying at the Thacher (Hotel) thanks to support from General Assistance.”

“This is a huge issue and not an easy one,” said Bowen.

And there are no easy answers. Biddeford, as are some other municipalities, is asking the state for help.

Biddeford’s resolution asks the governor, supported by legislative leaders, to create a formal working group of elected and professional staff to make improvements to state and local responses for those who are unhoused.

“From my perspective, the state has to absolutely become more involved, as this is not simply a local issue, and it cannot be solved by Biddeford, or Sanford, or Portland, or whatever,” said Mayor Alan Casavant in response to an email seeking comment. “All communities need to be collectively involved in dealing with the homeless, because even if they, on paper, have no homeless, it is because they move to towns or cities where services and programs are available.”


He called Bowen’s numbers shocking.

“There are no immediate short-term fixes, as there are no funds in the Biddeford budget for this situation and attempts to fund programs or housing simply denies money to other needs or services,” Casavant continued. “There are American Rescue Plan Act funds, and Reverend Shirley is going to apply, but there were, I believe 28 entities seeking those funds.”

Casavant said there is not enough housing in the city, “and that is driving up prices in a supply and demand scenario.” And, he noted, much of Maine is in the same situation, which compounds the matter.

City staff does work with those in the homeless camps, he said, that tend to come and go with the seasons.

“The city recognizes the issue and that it will not simply disappear, but there are no easy, quick solutions, which is very frustrating for the city and very scary … for those who are affected,” said Casavant. “I do not believe that Maine cities and towns can unilaterally pay for housing issues, as state and federal money is needed.”

Portland, he said, which is housing about 1,700 people each night, is a good example of how costs can escalate.

There are some long-range possibilities, but none are immediate, Casavant said.

“The Devine development off Route 111 will contribute $500,000 to affordable housing, but that is down the road,” he said. “The city also plans to TIF the Harrington project on the Diamond Match property, using those tax dollars for affordable housing, but that too is down the road. Biddeford Housing Authority is building affordable units behind St. James School, but that too, is not ready for tomorrow.”

The vote to approve the resolution was unanimous.

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