The move from 76 degrees on opening day for deer hunting to the high 30s by Monday shows how quickly our weather can turn here. That’s when we really start to worry for those who experience homelessness. But it’s not just the weather that can affect those who don’t have what many of us may take for granted – a place to call home.

A group of people protest against homeless encampment sweeps in front of Portland City Hall last month. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

Those who are homeless face a variety of threats, from food insecurity and lack of medical care to their very safety. There’s no better example of that vulnerability than the incident in Sanford, which involved a homeless man who was assaulted by two Sanford residents. It also shows how the growth of our homeless population through unfettered, uncontrolled security failures at our southern border is starting to impact Maine.

About 582,000 individuals were homeless in the U.S. last year, according to a report from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). Each January, the state conducts its own Point in Time Count (PIT) of Maine’s homeless through the Maine State Housing Authority (MaineHousing). It’s required each year by HUD and tracks those considered sheltered and unsheltered.

Maine had an estimated 4,258 homeless individuals when this year’s PIT was completed, including 3,168 who were sheltered while 791 were reported to HUD as living in some sort of transitional housing. That still left nearly 300 people who went unsheltered last winter.

The federal government defines three types of homelessness. Transitional homelessness ranges from weeks to months but less than a year, while episodic homelessness refers to periods where individuals enter and leave homelessness repeatedly and is common among those with unstable housing situations.

The last – and the most pervasive – is chronic homelessness, defined as being homeless repeatedly or for at least a year while struggling with a disabling condition such as a serious mental illness, substance use disorder or physical disability. Any of these can lead to hidden homelessness, where people often turn to others for help or “couch surf” and are not often measured because they fly under the radar.


In response, police departments began adopting the Homelessness Crisis Protocol in 2022. It was the brainchild of several progressive colleagues in the 130th Maine Legislature through the passage of L.D. 1478, which sought to decriminalize certain crimes by homeless individuals such as disorderly conduct, criminal trespass, indecent conduct and the consumption of drugs or alcohol in public.

L.D. 1478 became law in June 2021 without the governor’s signature and required the Office of the Maine Attorney General to develop the protocols that would divert those who are homeless to other available social services in lieu of entering the criminal justice system. As reported last week, some departments adopted it early on while others are still in process or haven’t yet done so.

While the intent to divert those who need additional services to appropriate resources is worthy – Sanford’s task force has done a great job in identifying individuals who need greater case management – the execution of it is what’s wrong here. Telling someone they can commit a crime and avoid a penalty is never OK.

Why? We learn from the youngest of ages that actions have consequences. Whether it’s taking a toy away from a sibling or fighting in the schoolyard, the immediate feedback we receive is formative to our future behavior as we grow. It’s called operant conditioning.

The question is whether taking away those consequences and providing diversionary services has worked in reducing homelessness. Considering MaineHousing counted 1,097 homeless individuals in Maine in 2021 and 3,455 in 2022, it seems to be getting worse. Moreover, the protocols may be leaving victims of crime in their wake.

Municipalities like Sanford should be proud of how they’re trying to help those most in need. Still, the growth of the homeless population across our entire state clearly shows we need a different approach.

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