Maine House Speaker Rachel Talbot Ross presented a bill Tuesday to use state funds to help create permanent housing for people now sleeping in emergency shelters.

Such a “housing first” approach is a proven strategy to alleviate chronic homelessness, the Portland Democrat told fellow lawmakers.

House Speaker Rachel Talbot Ross talks during a press conference on Jan 17. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

“It is my belief that every single human being deserves to be treated with dignity and respect, and that means safe shelter and having their basic needs met,” Talbot Ross said. “For those experiencing chronic homelessness, we simply aren’t meeting our obligations.”

Communities that adopt the housing first philosophy provide permanent housing with supportive health care services, rather than a temporary shelter, to those who are chronically homeless. Gov. Janet Mills has endorsed the concept and Democratic leaders are lining up behind the bill. With Democratic control of the state House and Senate and support from the governor, the bill’s prospects are promising.

The Legislature’s Housing Committee held a hearing on the bill Tuesday, and is expected to discuss it during a workshop session Friday.

Talbot Ross’ proposal would redirect $13 million from real estate transfer tax revenue from the state’s general fund to a new Housing First Fund operated by the Maine Department of Health and Human Services. The fund would be combined with other subsidies to support the development and operation of new supportive housing serving various parts of the state.


“As we all know, homelessness is not just a southern Maine problem. It is a problem that must be addressed in communities across the state,” Talbot Ross said. “Whether it be Lewiston, Augusta, Bangor, Waterville or Presque Isle, a housing first model can be scaled to meet the needs of the community.”

State housing officials estimate there are nearly 700 chronically homeless people in Maine who could be served with such housing. The housing is not intended for those who need emergency shelter for short periods, such as many of those who have overflowed Portland shelters in recent months because they are new immigrants who are not yet allowed to work.

While details are still being worked out, much of the money would help fund the support services – such as substance use treatment and mental health services – that are in short supply and much-needed by those who are chronically homeless. Having those services on-site and available 24 hours, seven days per week is crucial to turning the lives around of the homeless, advocates said. Other existing funding would be needed to develop the housing units.

Talbot Ross pointed to housing first success stories in Portland, with the nonprofit agency Preble Street providing support services at Florence House, Logan Place and Huston Commons. Of the residents, 89% maintained housing and did not return to homelessness over a five-year period.

Cullen Ryan, executive director of Community Housing of Maine, which uses the approach to house 183 chronically homeless people, said the state providing the funding for supportive services is an important step and will help get more housing first projects across the finish line.

A 2015 study done for CHOM showed that housing first saves money, an average annual cost savings of about $5,852 per person – savings attributed to lower use of emergency services.


“Housing first has a 90% to 95% success rate,” Ryan said. “We must house this population.”

Eamonn Dundon, advocacy director for the Portland Regional Chamber of Commerce, testified in favor of the bill, arguing that Portland has “shouldered the largest burden of any municipality in the state when it comes to the provision of services for people experiencing homelessness.”

Dundon said Portland has “taken on this challenge with often limited support from the state and federal government” and transitioning to a housing first model should help alleviate the problem and reduce the tent city sites in areas of Portland.

“The de facto sanctioning of unsafe encampment practices not only threatens the safety and dignity of people experiencing homelessness, but also the continued viability of our commercial districts and downtown areas,” Dundon said. “Already, due to the pandemic many of our members have faced challenges with depressed foot traffic and vitality in our downtown cores, and the increased presence of individuals experiencing homelessness concentrating in unsafe and unclean conditions threatens to undermine that recovery.”

Talbot Ross said housing first can provide “transformational change.”

“We can make history here in Maine and have the ability to do something that no other state has done by ending chronic homelessness,” Talbot Ross said. “This unique opportunity is now, the resources are available now and the time to take action is now.”

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