Faced with a homelessness crisis unlike anything Maine has ever experienced, the state cannot afford to stand by and watch established shelters struggling – or failing.

Without financial intervention, however, that’s what’s going to happen.

The exterior of the new Homeless Services Center in Portland’s Riverside neighborhood. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

As we reported Tuesday, six shelters around the state are this year facing a collective shortfall of about $4.1 million and at least one shelter – Hope House Emergency Shelter in Bangor – is in danger of closing.

Operators are reporting a steep rise in the rate of chronic homelessness, substance abuse and mental illness. By their nature, the “low-barrier” shelters in question are far more costly to operate than their traditional, high-barrier counterparts; a low-barrier shelter does not require a background check to enter and will not turn people away for reasons to do with addiction, antisocial behavior or crime.

This is exactly the type of shelter space Maine needs in abundance right now, a fact that testimony before the Legislature’s Joint Select Committee on Housing hammered home this week.

Lori Dwyer, the president and CEO of the Penobscot Community Health Center, which owns and operates Hope House, told the committee that Hope House is at risk of closing within the year. Its funding mix is made up of funding from MaineHousing, the Maine Department of Health and Human Services, the United Way, General Assistance (from the city of Bangor) and an amount of private fundraising.


Dwyer pointed out that shelters today need more highly trained staff than in recent years, staff “who can address a whole spectrum of challenges.” On top of that, she noted, Maine’s homeless shelters are no longer a temporary base for many people; whereas the average stay before the pandemic was about 30 days, some now find themselves remaining at a shelter for three months or more.

“It’s just not sustainable,” Dwyer told the committee. “We can’t continue to do it. My hope is we can come up with a solution that includes perhaps increased funding at the state level.”

In an emergency like the one we’re in, there’s no reason “perhaps” should be part of this statement. The state has the money to bridge the budget gaps anticipated by Hope House and counterparts in Portland and Waterville, and so it should bridge them.

The extraordinary demands of the homelessness crisis are being felt nationwide. California recently announced an additional $300 million in grant money for local governments to sweep encampments in dangerous locations and move their residents into housing. Connecticut awarded $5 million to homelessness service providers to fund operations this winter; during the last legislative session, those providers appealed for $50 million.

Lawmakers in Massachusetts just approved a spending bill that includes $250 million for emergency shelter for vulnerable families and a further $50 million for an “overflow site” for those on shelter waiting lists. Even with that secured, the state’s delegation pleaded with the Biden administration this week for a greater share of federal funding to assist with housing and services for newly arrived migrants.

The number of homeless people in Maine quadrupled to 4,000 between 2021 and 2023, according to MaineHousing, outpacing all of the New England states but for Massachusetts. The need for continued work on bigger-picture aims – the development of affordable housing and investment in the effective “housing first” model – is clear.

But until more major systemic change is realized, the homeless shelters in our communities will play an outsize role and have an enormous, expensive responsibility, one clearly growing steadily by the year. Maine should recognize the critical work carried out by these shelter operators by providing them with the help they have asked for and so desperately need.

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