A section of the homeless encampment under the Casco Bay Bridge near Commercial Street in Portland on Nov. 9. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Boulder, Colorado, is putting more money into shelters for the growing homeless population. Phoenix approved a safe camping area for people sleeping outside. Worcester, Massachusetts, and Houston are investing in apartments for chronically homeless people.

Federal data show Maine may be experiencing a more rapid rise in homelessness than many other states, a trend that has become much more visible as tent communities sprung up in Portland other communities over the past three years.

But, even as the Portland City Council is set to decide Monday whether to pause encampment sweeps and allow homeless people to sleep in tents throughout the community, other cities across the country are facing the same pressures and difficult decisions.

“Unsheltered homelessness is at one of its highest levels ever,” said Donald Whitehead, executive director of the National Coalition for the Homeless, a Washington D.C. organization dedicated to education and improvement of public policy around homelessness.

“People are accessing tents, benches, the woods and living in cars at levels we haven’t seen before, and it’s because we don’t have enough shelter for any portion of the population. Nowhere in the country are there enough shelter beds to meet the needs.”

The number of people homeless nationwide – about 582,000 according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development – has risen about 6% in the past six years. But the number of unsheltered homeless people – about 234,000 – is up 33% during the same period, according to HUD’s most recent Annual Homelessness Assessment Report. The most recent federal data reflects the national homeless census conducted in January 2022.


In Maine, officials found more than 4,200 people who were homeless during the annual Point In Time Count early this year. The state has one of the lowest rates of homelessness nationwide, but it has seen one of the largest increases percentagewise, with a 67% jump in homelessness from 2007 to 2022, according to HUD.

Only Vermont and Delaware had higher percentage increases of overall homelessness over the same time period, according to the federal data. However, direct comparisons to other states are difficult because of differences in who is eligible for assistance and who gets included in state homelessness numbers.

There is no disputing Maine has seen a rapid rise in homelessness and especially in the number of people sleeping outside in tents or makeshift shelters. The number of unsheltered homeless people in Maine nearly tripled between 2019 and 2023, from 95 to 299, according to the annual January census.


While some have blamed local policies or decisions for worsening the problem, it’s clear the same factors are fueling the crisis nationwide.

“At the root of the situation is a housing problem,” said Stephen Metraux, an associate professor of public policy at the University of Delaware who researches homelessness. “There isn’t enough housing, and the housing that is available is getting really expensive.”


According to the National Low Income Housing Coalition, median rents increased 17.9% between 2001 and 2021, while median household income increased by only 3.2%.

“Nationally, (access to) affordable housing is getting worse and worse,” said Elizabeth Bowen, an associate professor at the University at Buffalo School of Social Work. “This, I think, is the biggest factor driving the crisis we have with homelessness. It varies regionally, but throughout the country, it’s getting harder and harder for people to afford housing, even if they’re working.”

In addition, the COVID-19 pandemic resulted in new resources and aid for the homeless, such as federal dollars that helped pay for rent or hotels rather than congregate shelters. But with the end of federal funding and additional resources, people are going back to their old living situations, whether it’s sleeping outside or on a friend’s couch, Metraux said.

“COVID uncovered a population that was always out there but never really visible,” Metraux said.

A homeless encampment is seen along Leavenworth Street in San Francisco on Nov. 8. Eric Risberg/Associated Press, file

City of Portland spokesperson Jessica Grondin agreed that the loss of pandemic funds that were being used to support people across the state is a main driver of increases in homelessness.

“When communities across the state lost those funds and people were evicted from their living situation (hotels or housing) people flocked to places like Portland or Bangor for the services,” Grondin said in an email.


In Maine, as well as some other states, the issue has been compounded by an influx of asylum seekers arriving in the state in need of shelter.

While other states also are seeing influxes of asylum seekers, the new arrivals are more likely to show up in homeless counts in Maine because of the state’s responses and data collection, according to Scott Thistle, a spokesperson for MaineHousing. Maine allowed noncitizens to access federal Emergency Rental Assistance to pay for hotels during the pandemic, while some states did not allow noncitizens to use the program or did not allow its use at hotels at all. As a result, those people were included in Maine’s counts but not in the data collected by other states, he said.

The state’s Point in Time Count included increases in the percentages of Black or African American people and women who make up the homeless population, which further points to the increase in asylum seeking families coming to the state, Thistle said.

HUD’s report lists Maine as having one of the largest increases in the number of families with children who are homeless, with an increase of 1,146 families, or 142%, between 2020 and 2022.

Yet the state had no families who were unsheltered, according to the report.

“That says to me that we have at least been sheltering our most vulnerable folks,” Thistle said.



The Portland City Council is scheduled to vote Monday on a proposal from Councilors Anna Trevorrow and Roberto Rodriguez to allow homeless people to sleep in tents throughout the city until the end of April.

It’s not clear if the measure has enough support to move forward after the heads of every major city department sent a letter to the council opposing the idea. Residents also are strongly divided about what to do with encampments, and activists on both sides are urging citizens to turn out Monday for and against the proposal.

It’s a debate happening across the country.

The same day city and state officials in Portland cleared an encampment of more than 120 tents at the park-and-ride on Marginal Way and surrounding areas earlier this month, workers in Boston also dismantled a sprawling encampment.

A few days later, Phoenix finished clearing an encampment that was home to more than 700 people ahead of a court-ordered deadline. But that city also has opened a “Safe Outdoor Space” for people to camp in safety while working with them on plans to move indoors.


“Obviously we want as many people as possible to go indoors, but since we’ve been clearing out this encampment and making it a no-camping zone, we really wanted an alternative place for people to be able to stay outside, if that’s what they want to do, but in a safer area,” said Rachel Milne, director of the Office of Homeless Solutions for the city of Phoenix.

She said the outdoor space, in a former state surplus yard, was opened in conjunction with an increase in indoor shelter beds. It has case management, laundry, showers, storage space and other amenities that didn’t exist at the encampment.

Other cities have explored solutions such as additional funding for shelter services and providing transitional apartments or tiny homes. County commissioners in Boulder, Colorado, approved additional funding for its homeless shelter earlier this month citing an increase in people accessing services and a need to close a funding gap for staff, utilities, food and other resources.

In Worcester, Massachusetts, the local housing authority just held a ribbon cutting for new “micro apartments” to serve the chronically homeless and low-income residents with an on-site case manager to help connect tenants with support services. The opening comes as the city is anticipating a 14% increase in the number of individual homeless adults this fall compared to last fall, WBUR reported.


Cities that have had success in reducing homelessness or getting people out of encampments often have the benefit of not being overwhelmed by homelessness numbers and relatively inexpensive housing compared to other places, Metraux said.


He said the housing-first model “has been shown to work time and time again.” Housing first gives people who struggle with long-term homelessness a place to live without preconditions, such as clean credit histories, references or security deposits. The housing comes with support services, such as caseworkers, food pantries and access to counselors or employment training.

“That assistance is expensive, but we’re paying for it anyway if people are on the streets with the cost of emergency care, jail and prisons. You might as well get them housed,” Metraux said.

Houston is one city that has found success with housing first. The Way Home, a collective of local governments, nonprofits and social service agencies, has used the model to place more than 28,000 people in permanent housing since 2012, according to its website.

Portland has a number of housing-first communities that have been credited with helping chronically homeless people. The Maine Legislature approved a statewide housing-first program this year, though funding isn’t expected to be available until 2025.

Bowen, the associate professor at the University at Buffalo, said such programs have grown in popularity in many places in recent years, but funding for the housing and for the support services remains a challenge.

“We have a solution that works pretty well for homelessness, but because it’s underfunded there is not nearly enough supply… Then there’s the other thing that’s tricky,” Bowen said. “It’s about finding the supply of housing but also making sure there are those supportive services in place in the community to help people get what they need in order to be successful.”

Related Headlines

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or login first for digital access. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.

filed under: