Veronica Perez of Westbrook says she, her husband and her 4-year-old daughter relied on Emergency Rent Assistance and now face being homeless. Robert Lowell / American Journal

It’s just days before Christmas and artist Veronica Perez worries her family will soon be homeless.

Perez, her husband and her 4-year-old daughter live in a studio apartment on East Valentine Street in Westbrook. The rent, which increased three times during the pandemic, is $1,250 a month and they don’t have a lease, she said.

The family depended on the federal government’s Emergency Rental Assistance Program, part of pandemic relief measures to help struggling Americans meet rent and utility costs. They were unaware their assistance had expired in November until their landlord called asking for his rent.

“I was flabbergasted,” Perez said.

Perez, a multidisciplinary artist who focuses on identity and has won numerous honors in the state, will start in January as the 2023 artist-in-residence at the University of Southern Maine. She had been employed in social work but after losing that job during the pandemic she worked for “a Black-led nonprofit,” she said. Her husband works in “a beer store,” she said.

The Perez family is one of 218 households in Westbrook who face eviction after all the federal rental assistance funds dry up as of Jan. 1, according to Harrison Deah, director of Westbrook General Assistance.


The rental assistance funding also paid for many asylum seekers’ hotel stays in the area. About 700 asylum seekers housed in hotels in neighboring communities, many of whom attend religious services in Westbrook churches, will become unsheltered.

The number of homeless people already living on Westbrook streets or in vehicles is unknown.

“That is not information that we have as most of the population moves around amongst area communities,” Mayor Michael Foley said.

Westbrook schools currently have 52 homeless students, down from a high of 94 earlier this year, “because so many families have had to make the difficult decision to leave Westbrook,” said Katie Garrity, clinical coordinator for the school department.

“My situation pales in comparison with others,” Perez said.

The volunteer Westbrook Community Housing Coalition is working to raise awareness of a potential homelessness crisis in the city and is awaiting the outcome of a legislative hearing on emergency relief funding scheduled for Wednesday, Dec. 21, after the American Journal’s deadline.


Rep. Suzanne Salisbury, D-Westbrook, said the proposed relief plan “also means support for agencies that are providing shelter to families living in hotels.”

The Appropriation and Financial Affairs Committee will make their recommendations after Wednesday’s hearing, Salisbury said.

“The Legislature will not be back into session until Jan. 4 when we would vote on it. We are hopeful it will get strong support so relief for Mainers can be sent out as soon as possible,” Salisbury said.

Meanwhile, two agencies, Greater Portland Family Promise and Project HOME, plan to help, said Liz Eisele McLellan, co-chairperson of the Westbrook Community Housing Coalition. McLellan is slated to speak at Wednesday’s legislative hearing.

Family Promise is seeking volunteers to help support temporary shelters and day centers in Westbrook, McLellan said in an email.

First Baptist Church on Main Street is hosting a free breakfast for unhoused people 8 a.m. Saturday, Dec. 24, to hear what they’d need in a shelter.


“I have not heard of anyone pulling together, organizing and training volunteers to staff a warming shelter, however. Once that happens, we’ll open our doors,” the Rev. Scott Linscott of First Baptist said Tuesday.

Project HOME brings together landlords, housing readiness programs and housing mentors to support tenants who would otherwise be screened out of the tenant application process due to application fees, credit scores, tenant histories and move-in costs.

“Its unspeakably awful that we’re willing to tolerate this as a culture,” Mike Miles, a Westbrook resident, said after last week’s coalition meeting. Miles attended the meeting after seeing a Dec. 8 article in the American Journal about the coalition.

Perez said people don’t understand the seriousness of the situation. “Where are we going to move out to?” Perez asked.

The couple has exhausted their savings, but because The Opportunity Alliance agency paid their November and December rent, they don’t owe any back rent, and they’ve made sure their daughter will have a good Christmas, she said.

Still, “uncertainty is troubling,” Perez said.

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