As of December 2023, roughly 20 unhoused people were living in an encampment in Biddeford’s Mechanics Park. Eloise Goldsmith

BIDDEFORD — For many, homelessness may seem like a distant concept — something that you know is possible but never seriously consider could happen to you.

Well it happened to Greg, a homeless man in Biddeford, who just one year ago was living in a house near downtown with his girlfriend and a few roommates.

But then in early 2023, Greg and his girlfriend were evicted from their shared six-bedroom home because one of their roommates failed to pay their rent for 10 months. They were suddenly without a place to live. Greg — whose first name and those of other unhoused individuals we spoke to for this story have been changed to protect their anonymity — discussed his experience living outside with the Biddeford Courier in December.

He’s 55 years old and epileptic. Both he and his girlfriend receive disability insurance, but not enough to be a competitive applicant for one of Biddeford’s market rate apartments, he said. 

“We just need a break,” Greg said. At the time we spoke in December, he was waiting to hear back from a caseworker about finding an apartment. 

The week after being evicted, Greg and his partner spent about a week sleeping in doorways. 


“It was scary,” he said. “My girl and I were fighting a lot, crying, wondering when we’re going to eat again, wondering when we’re going to have an apartment again.”  

He voluntarily chose to give his dog to Animal Control — another heartbreak, but one that seemed right given that he’s without a steady place to live. In December, Greg and his girlfriend were one of roughly 20 unhoused people living in a camp in Mechanics Park, a congregation of tents that has remained standing since the summer of 2023.

The day we spoke, Greg was spending the morning at Seeds of Hope, a neighborhood center that provides food, clothes, and other services to community members in need. Since 2008, the nonprofit has operated out of the basement of the Christ Episcopal Church, which was aflutter with activity that morning. 

A Christmas tree sat in the corner and long tables were covered with holiday-themed table cloths. The sound of friendly conversations and the smell of breakfast food filled the air. During the winter months, Seeds of Hope turns into a warming center at night, which has capacity for 20 people. Recently, Greg has been one of its regular overnight guests.

The number of homeless people visiting Seeds of Hope has increased dramatically in the past few years, according to Seeds of Hope Executive Director Vassie Fowler. It’s a trend that echoes state-wide homelessness statistics. 

Three years ago, the center served roughly 45 people a day, a quarter of whom were experiencing homelessness. Fowler estimated that these days, the neighborhood center serves 100 people a day, and 90% of them are homeless. Data from the school district shows that 3% of students are experiencing homelessness. 


Statewide, 4,258 people were experiencing homelessness on Jan. 24, 2023, according to MaineHousing’s “Point in Time Count.” That’s up from 1,097 on the same day in 2021. 2023’s count included nearly 800 people who were staying in transitional housing — which had not been included in the count years prior — in addition to unsheltered people, and individuals living in hotels funded by general assistance and other emergency rental programs.

Biddeford is but one municipality working to confront a complex national problem — and so far it has eschewed punitive approaches in favor of finding ways to build more affordable housing and taking a hard look at existing resources. 

“I think our city is doing an amazing job,” said Fowler, who said for the most part, city workers treat the unhoused community with “dignity and respect.”

The city has not forcibly removed people camping in Mechanics Park, and has no plans to, according to City Councilor-At-Large Doris Ortiz. Efforts to build more affordable housing are also underway. The city also commissioned an investigation by an outside consultant into the state of homelessness in both Saco and Biddeford — which culminated in a December report listing over a dozen policy recommendations. City Council held a workshop on Jan. 9 to discuss the findings and enlist feedback from the community.

“This report is evidence-based policy options for reducing homelessness,” said Ortiz. It’s an opportunity to confront the problem proactively instead of limiting the city to its existing toolkit, she added.

While current resources are scarce and enacting municipal policy is slow moving, Biddeford’s overall approach hasn’t gone unnoticed by the unhoused.


“Biddeford is actually a nice town. There’s good people here,” said Daniel, a homeless person who spends time at Seeds of Hope. Daniel indicated he’s been homeless for a long time, even though he’s only 24 years old. A veteran of the foster care system and originally from Florida, he’s also the father of a young daughter that he had when he was 17.

He’s appreciative that Biddeford, for the most part, is a place where he can be without cops harassing him. But living outside is still living outside.

“I remember being first homeless, that s— embarrassing. Being on the side of the street, people look at you like you’re a f— animal in the zoo,” Daniel said.

Zach, an unhoused person living in Mechanics Park who was there that morning at Seeds of Hope, also spoke about the shame of being homeless. “I’ve been a contractor for 30 years. I’m usually making plenty of money and now I’m sitting here in a homeless park trying to re-establish my life,” he said in December.

He gave city officials a mixed review when it comes to how they’re supporting the unhoused.

Zach said that when a group of kids knocked over a latrine set up for those occupying Mechanics Park making it unusable, the city was slow to clean it up. “We called and made complaints several times and they won’t come and clean the thing,” he said in December. 


He also wishes there was a more proactive effort to make unhoused people aware of the full slate of resources available to them, especially when it comes to housing opportunities.

At the same time, he’s appreciative of Seeds of Hope as well as the efforts of Joyce Reny, a Biddeford woman who has coordinated and dropped off donations of propane and supplies for people living in Mechanics Park.

Two community members stand outside Seeds of Hope, which operates out of the Christ Episcopal Church. Eloise Goldsmith photo

Zach has a truck that needs a repair, but once he has the money to fix it, he’s confident he can get back on the road and start working as a contractor again. “I’m in this, and I want to get the hell out of it,” he said. 

Grohman Wants to Build Trust with the Unhoused

One person who has said he wants to help the unhoused community is Biddeford’s new mayor, Marty Grohman.

Grohman identified addressing homelessness as one of the key priorities of his administration during his inauguration speech in early December. “Taking on homelessness is about transitional housing, health care, peer support, regional collaboration,” he said. “But it’s really about a surprising word. And that word is trust,” emphasizing the importance of building a human relationship between city government and the unhoused community.


Grohman said he wants to invest resources in combating homelessness, which he says would ultimately save the city money in the long run.

Right now, current resources are “relatively scarce,” to use the wording of the report delivered in December.

 All municipalities in Maine administer a General Assistance program, through which people can apply for financial assistance in situations when they do not have enough money to cover the basics, like rent, food, and medication. 

Then there’s the work of York County Community Action Corporation, which offers services for the unhoused, such as access to childcare, social work services, and health care. YCCAC is also at the helm of one of nine hubs aimed at addressing the crisis. The purpose of the York County hub is to “improve coordination countywide between agencies that are working with folks who are homeless and develop a … by name list of everyone in the county who is homeless,” according to Carter Friend, the CEO of YCCAC.

There’s also Biddeford Housing Authority, a quasi-governmental agency which works to construct affordable housing, administers Section 8 housing vouchers and is currently spearheading an affordable housing development on Adams Street. 

York County also offers over 30 shelter beds, which are all located in Alfred, but they are routinely full and do not take people under the influence of drugs and alcohol, or people experiencing acute psychological distress. Biddeford itself does not have a shelter. In 2022, Biddeford City Council mulled building a low barrier shelter, but ultimately did not move forward with the idea. 


Jacob Hammer, the Biddeford Police Department’s community engagement specialist, is currently pursuing a masters in social work and assists with police calls when there is a mental or behavioral health concern at play. He spends time each week at tent sites, at Seeds of Hope or other community spaces, doing outreach with the unhoused community to try to connect them with resources or provide other support.

The Bon Appetit Meal Program provides weeknight meals to the unhoused. And of course there’s Seeds of Hope, where showers, food and clothes are available for neighbors in need.

Grohman’s rhetoric forms a contrast with Portland’s new mayor, Mark Dion, a former police officer who supports a more law and order approach to homelessness.

“Good people are afraid of our parks and public spaces,” said Dion during a mayoral debate held in October. “There are individuals who exploit, assault, and keep addicted people in these microcommunities,” he said, referring to homeless encampments in the city.

Portland has also conducted a number of sweeps of encampments in the city, which some members of City Council, advocates, and activists call inhumane.

On Jan. 2, the City of Portland removed a camp in Harbor View Memorial Park – Portland’s largest remaining encampment – saying that


Activists protest Portland’s clearing of a camp in Harbor View Memorial Park on Jan. 2, 2024. Eloise Goldsmith photo

the city’s shelter in Riverside had enough beds to accommodate the people living there. The move was protested by local faith leaders and activists, including the Maine Democratic Socialists of America. 

Homelessness Report Offers a Slate of Policy Options

Housing is not the only solution to homelessness. Vassie Fowler will tell you that many of the neighbors she serves need both mental health support and substance abuse treatment in order to re-integrate into their communities, not just the keys to an apartment.

But the housing supply is closely linked to the crisis.

Research shows that for those living in an area where housing is scarce and expensive, and if they are vulnerable in any serious way – say, having a disability like Greg – they are more likely to experience homelessness.

A report from multiple Maine state agencies released in October illustrates just how much the state is lacking when it comes to housing stock. Historic underproduction has been compounded with an influx of people who moved to Maine during the pandemic. The report’s authors estimated that Maine’s coastal region, which includes Biddeford, needs to build between 45,400 and 49,200 homes to counteract the underproduction and expected population growth by 2030. Homes are also largely unaffordable to people living in the state, the report found. 


The issue of housing affordability has been a consistent agenda item for City Council. 

Previous Mayor Alan Casavant formed an ad hoc task force to review and make recommendations on housing issues facing the community, which offered a final report in 2022. Some of the recommendations have already come to fruition — including an inclusionary zoning policy inked late last year, which ensures that new developments in Biddeford contribute to affordable housing construction. The city also recently updated its codes to comply with state law LD 2003, which aims to clear the way for greater housing construction.

The task force’s work prompted the city to retain an outside consultant to identify needs of the unhoused and suggest policy recommendations. 

“We felt (homelessness) was too large for the Affordable Housing Task Force to tackle on its own,” said Councilor Doris Ortiz, who was chair of the task force. She recalled that two sessions ago the City Council decided they wanted to confront the homelessness crisis more directly. 

The outside consultant’s report, which covers both Biddeford and Saco, was finalized in December 2023 and offers a range of policy options, some that the city can pursue on its own, and others that require coordination with other entities, such as faith organizations and hospitals. 

At the municipal level, many of the suggestions are focused on housing — such as using property tax cuts to incentivize residents to build accessory dwelling units for the purpose of housing homeless people.


Other recommendations include creating a formal Community Response Coordinating Council,  which would have representation from all sectors of the community, from business to education,  and the state and county, to better coordinate care. The report also calls on the cities to leverage their existing relationship with district attorneys to create and standardize a “specialty court to divert the unhoused from the criminal justice system.”

The report sought the input of the Homeless Taskforce, a group of key stakeholders that includes Biddeford Housing Authority head Guy Gagnon, York County Community Action’s Homeless Hub Coordinator Abigail Smallwood, Fowler, and others. 

Originally, Biddeford had intended to just evaluate homelessness within their own borders. It then changed tack and approached Saco about also being a part of the report so that its analysis would be more comprehensive.

When asked about how quickly and how effectively the city can hope to implement these policy recommendations, Councilor Ortiz said on Jan. 8 that she couldn’t speak to that yet, citing the need to get feedback from the community and hear feedback from other councilors. 

As of press time, City Council had yet to hold their workshop on the report, which took place on Jan. 9.

In a way, the outside report’s list of recommendations is a reminder of how much work must be done in order to confront the crisis. Ortiz said that’s in large part why she decided to run for her seat again.

She recalled thinking: “I need to be on Council to make sure this is being worked on and moving forward.”

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