Tonight, more than 400 men, women, and children will seek shelter at the emergency shelters in Portland. Some struggle with mental illness or substance-abuse problems; some report domestic violence; others are merely victims of the economy, of poverty, of the city's lack of affordable housing options. All are affected by the current capacity of the shelters; in 2011, a plan for handling temporary shelter "overflow" was used on 256 nights, or 70 percent of the time. Demand at the shelters continues to rise.
Calling the city's current emergency shelter system "unsustainable," Portland's Task Force on Homelessness, convened last November, will present its findings and recommendations to the public on Wednesday, October 3, before presenting a finalized plan to the city council on October 15.
"I can't think of anything that is more important right now," says Suzanne McCormick, president and CEO of the United Way of Greater Portland, and one of the leaders of the task force along with businessman Jon Jennings and former city councilor Dory Waxman. "We're seeing more people in homeless shelters on a nightly basis than ever before in Portland's history."
The recommendations are focus on three themes: retooling the emergency shelter system to create a centralized, "clearinghouse" process through which each homeless client would be quickly assessed and guided toward a customized support plan; diverting people from shelters to appropriate permanent housing as soon as possible (a/k/a "rapid rehousing"); and improving the case-management system to address specific needs — sick people want different services than teenagers, who in turn use programs different from those that serve veterans.
Rapid rehousing, a strategy recommended by the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness, doesn't call for a time limit on shelter services (in Portland, most people who need emergency shelter require it for less than 30 days).
"The important point is that permanent housing is the preeminent goal," the local task force report reads. "Households are not required to wait in temporary housing while they attend classes, acquire skills or otherwise demonstrate a level of 'housing readiness . . . [T]his approach has been proven to be effective with both people who are situationally homeless as well as those who are chronically homeless."
The current (strained) system costs almost $7 million to maintain. The task force's recommendations call for investments from a vast network of government, nonprofit, and private entities, including the city of Portland, the US Department of Housing and Urban Development, veterans' agencies, hospitals, and local businesses.
While the payoffs will be spread across the community, and over time, the report suggests that it's possible to significantly reduce emergency room, health care, mental health, and social service costs — "through full implementation, we estimate an annual cost savings to the emergency service system of $2,245,000."
Local advocates for the homeless are pleased to see Portland, a longtime service center, finally responding to the chronic issue of housing insecurity.
"[F]or more than two decades, [advocates] have been calling for a 'housing first' approach to homelessness," says University of Southern Maine professor David Wagner, who, along with USM alumna Jennifer Barton Gilman, recently published Confronting Homelessness: Poverty, Politics, and the Failure of Social Policy (Lynne Rienner Publishing). "[G]et people off the streets and then you will see other areas of their life improve . . . I am glad that city of Portland has belatedly acknowledged that."