There are currently hundreds of people across Maine, in rural and urban communities, living in encampments or in the woods or parks or sheltering in abandoned buildings.

A homeless encampment at the Department of Transportation Park & Ride lot on Marginal Way in Portland. More than 30 tents are pitched on the edge of the lot, with many homeless people relocating there after the Bayside Trail encampment was cleared last month. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

Undeniably, the pandemic, along with systemic racism, the enormous wealth divide in our country and global conflicts that force the displacement of people from war-torn nations, has contributed to our state’s current homelessness crisis.

Never before in our organization’s nearly 50-year history have there been more people living in Maine experiencing homelessness, housing instability and hunger.

It doesn’t have to be this way.

We can turn the tide on unsheltered homelessness in Maine. There are many people – in state and local governments, in social service agencies and in our communities – who are stepping up and putting forth creative ideas to ensure that our most vulnerable citizens have shelter. Working alongside and in support of many partners, we are hopeful that these efforts will come to fruition and address the most immediate needs of shelter, housing and safety.

But until our actions prioritize people’s lives, nothing will change. Communities will continue to struggle with encampments, and the people we care about will suffer.


First, Maine must commit to providing the most basic of needs: a roof over every head.

Thirty-six years ago, more than 100 unhoused people and community supporters, including Preble Street founder Joe Kreisler, formed a tent city protest on the steps of Portland’s City Hall in response to the lack of shelter. That demonstration in the summer of 1987 led to the creation of both municipal- and nonprofit-run shelters. At the same time, then-City Manager Bob Ganley publicly stated Portland’s moral obligation and commitment to provide shelter to anyone in need.

For 30 years the city of Portland proudly upheld that charge, maintaining that commitment with the full support of every City Council over those decades. Maine led the nation in the lowest number of unsheltered homeless individuals until that policy was changed. When that happened in 2017, we saw the immediate results of that action: Portland joined the ranks of other cities with tents pitched along our streets and sleeping bags on our sidewalks. This has now become the status quo, and those tents and sleeping bags are the visual evidence that the emergency shelter system in our state – our first line of defense against the unsheltered crisis we are facing – is inadequate and under-resourced.

Maine communities need a strong plan in place to respond when more people need shelter beds than are available, which is happening every night at almost every shelter. For example, when the Portland community had in place a commitment to shelter anyone in need whenever the local shelters reached capacity, it triggered an overflow plan, opening up the former Preble Street Resource Center (now the Elena’s Way Wellness Shelter) to 75 men overnight in a warm and safe environment. When that overflow became full, the city of Portland and community partners developed additional overflow options. At one point, the Portland community was sheltering more than 400 single adults in its shelters and overflow facilities. And no one who asked for shelter was turned away.

Next, emergency shelters need consistent funding to keep their doors open. Currently, Maine’s shelters are reliant on a patchwork of state and local funding and private donations that do not meet the need.

Then-Gov. Paul LePage’s 2015 attack on the safety net system for poor and homeless Mainers changed the way General Assistance had been used to support municipally run shelters and resulted in Bangor and Portland losing significant funding from the state for city shelter operating costs. In the past 15 years, inadequate shelter funding has directly caused the closure of seven emergency shelters in our community and made it almost impossible for new ones to open. By increasing the state’s support of shelters through General Assistance and increased operating funding from the state, we can take a step forward to stem this crisis and support the communities committed to providing shelter for our most vulnerable neighbors.


And we need to invest in the long-term solutions needed to end homelessness in Maine.

Gov. Mills, House Speaker Rachel Talbot Ross and members of the Maine Legislature have put in tremendous effort so far in 2023 to enact solutions that will shelter more people, feed more people, and house more people. We are very hopeful that before this session of the Legislature comes to an end, there will be more funding for well-run and professionally staffed emergency shelters, creating site-based “housing first” programs to support people who are chronically homeless, addressing food insecurity and expanding treatment programs for people with substance use and mental health disorders. We must continue advocating for these and other critical solutions, including affordable housing development, a robust behavioral health care system, a just asylum process and the decriminalization of homelessness.

Until we can provide a shelter bed for everyone who needs it, we must stop clearing encampments where people are just trying to survive. The unsheltered crisis we are facing continues to deepen, compounded by stigma and fear. Some municipalities are actively preventing hotels from being used as temporary shelter by individuals experiencing homelessness, limiting overflow spaces and bowing to pressures that actively discourage and inhibit the creation of new shelters throughout our state. More people run out of options each day as a result.

Let us be clear. These are not perfect or easy solutions. But they can form the start of a new commitment, as a community and as a state, to ensuring that anyone who needs shelter and safety can find it. We must stand together alongside our most vulnerable neighbors, cast aside fear and restore the humanity that has been stripped from decision making. It’s the least we can do.

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