Lauren Dembski-Martin, the social services navigator for the Scarborough Police Department, has applied for a $10,000 grant to study the needs of the homeless community in town so officials can make a plan that would help them more effectively. She said current resources are at capacity or unnecessary, and “we can’t keep referring people to resources that are maxed out.” Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Lauren Dembski-Martin counted about 50 homeless individuals living in Scarborough last year.

As the social services navigator at the Scarborough Police Department, she found people panhandling at busy intersections, tenting in wooded encampments or living out of their cars in store parking lots.

Some were locals who had been displaced from their homes. Others were just passing through.

“The pandemic highlighted the homelessness that’s always been here,” Dembski-Martin said. “It’s been camouflaged in Scarborough for a long time, but it’s not anymore.”

Scarborough is one of several communities, including South Portland and Westbrook, where people are taking action to address the homelessness crisis in Greater Portland. It’s a challenge that has long been left to Portland as Maine’s largest municipality, which is sheltering about 950 unhoused people nightly with more staying outdoors. The city is set to open a $25 million, 208-bed homeless services center this spring to replace the city’s aging and cramped Oxford Street Shelter.

But while many say homelessness is a broader regional and statewide issue that should be tackled at the State House, some are trying to do what they can locally.


In Scarborough, Dembski-Martin has applied for a $10,000 Cumberland County Community Development Block Grant to study the needs of homeless people in Scarborough so the town can develop a plan to help them more effectively.

“The homeless population in Scarborough is ever-changing and fluid,” she said. “Current resources are at capacity or no longer necessary. We can’t keep referring people to resources that are maxed out.”

What services Scarborough might provide and whether that might include an emergency shelter remains to be seen, she said.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, as many as 80 people were housed at the Comfort Inn & Suites on Route 1 in Scarborough. Under an agreement with town officials, the 69-room hotel is in the final stages of evicting guests in fewer than 20 rooms, many of whom previously received federal emergency rental assistance that ran out last fall. The hotel is booking traditional overnight guests starting March 1.

MaineHousing last month offered $21 million in grants to provide overnight warming shelters this winter, keep people in hotels through April and fund other long-term homeless shelter solutions across the state. The Mills administration, with bipartisan support in the Legislature, also delivered $22 million for a range of emergency housing needs in 2022, said spokesman Tony Ronzio.

“Every person in Maine should have the opportunity to have a warm, safe and secure place to call home,” Ronzio said in a statement. “We are continuing to work closely with local communities, regional organizations, and statewide partners to look for every solution possible to address this important issue facing Maine’s people, economy and workforce.”


Westbrook Mayor Mike Foley said the MaineHousing grants are too little, too late, and the Feb. 24 deadline to apply for long-term shelter solutions is too tight for anyone who doesn’t have a proposal already in the works.

Westbrook doesn’t have the means to develop, staff and operate an emergency shelter on its own, he said, and zoning doesn’t allow another entity to open a shelter in the city.

Homelessness is “something that everyone’s concerned about, but it’s not something that Westbrook can take on on its own,” Foley said. “It needs to be a regional effort and the mandate and the funding needs to come from the state.”

Liz McLellan is co-chair of the newly formed Westbrook Community Housing Coalition, a group working to address homelessness and lack of affordable housing. The coalition’s early efforts include providing resources to people living outdoors this winter and developing a network of residents willing to provide emergency shelter in their homes. “This is a big mountain, but it’s not just ours to climb,” McLellan said. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Still, a group of residents has formed the Westbrook Community Housing Coalition to address homelessness and the lack of affordable housing. It includes leaders of local churches, schools, social service agencies and immigrant groups.

“There are things we can do at the local level,” said Liz McLellan, who co-chairs the group with City Councilor Jennifer Munro. “It just takes a different way of thinking and a different approach.”

Although Westbrook has 1,600 housing units in the pipeline – including affordable, workforce and senior housing – the coalition formed in December out of concern for hundreds of residents who might become homeless as federal emergency rental assistance ran out. They also worried about the impact on asylum seekers living in area hotels and 50 to 70 homeless students attending Westbrook schools, Munro said.


The coalition’s early efforts include providing resources to homeless people living outdoors this winter; developing a network of residents willing to provide emergency shelter in their homes; advocating for homeless and housing initiatives at the state level; and inviting legislators to a local housing forum.

They are harnessing energy to bring about real change, McLellan said, while being realistic about what volunteers can actually accomplish.

“We’re not able to solve this on our own,” she said. “I don’t want people to get so frustrated they give up. This is a big mountain, but it’s not just ours to climb.”

They’re also talking about seeking zoning changes to promote workforce housing development and allow accessory dwelling units, or ADUs.

South Portland recently changed its zoning to allow ADUs and is on track to approve a rent control proposal this month. Next on the City Council’s agenda are proposed zoning and licensing regulations that would make it possible for nonprofit agencies to open homeless shelters in that city.

South Portland became the epicenter of Maine’s homelessness crisis during the pandemic, when several hotels became overflow emergency shelters for the Oxford Street Shelter. At the same time, some large apartment complexes imposed huge rent hikes in a runaway real estate market, threatening to make more people homeless.


“This community has reached a point where many agree we need to do something,” said Josh Reny, assistant city manager. “There are so many needs out there, we’re trying to thread the needle so the regulations allow for flexibility and scalability.”

Over 800 homeless people remain in South Portland hotels, said Shara Dee, city spokesperson. They include asylum seekers, families and individuals with substance use and mental health challenges — and some are among those being sheltered by the city of Portland. The South Portland City Council agreed Tuesday night to allow hotels to continue those emergency operations until April 30.

Councilors have expressed a desire to keep shelters small – possibly 50 or fewer beds or guests per facility, similar to Portland’s 40-bed Elena’s Way wellness shelter that Preble Street opened in October.

Councilors also are considering whether all shelters should provide communal gathering space, private sleeping areas and access to secure storage space and social services, Reny said. And they’re weighing how to limit the number of emergency shelters in the city, possibly by capping the number of beds overall.

Details about where shelters would be allowed in South Portland and how they would be licensed must be worked out before the proposals are presented to the council on Feb. 21.

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