Homelessness in Portland, Maine and Beyond

What do Maine’s new homelessness laws mean for Portland?

By Emma Campbell

PORTLAND – On September 19, a new law went into effect in Maine, requiring all towns to provide housing locally for homeless residents, rather than forcing them to relocate to Portland for their shelters. But how will this law change anything?

“An Act To Include Homelessness in the Laws Governing Emergency General Assistance”, signed by Governor Janet Mills in July, hopes to stop Portland’s homeless shelters from constantly overflowing. The law clarifies homelessness at anytime of the year as an emergency. Anyone living in standards unfit for human habitation is classified as homeless and can receive general assistance. 

Cumberland County has nine homeless shelters. Seven of those shelters are located in Portland, which is more shelters than any other county in Maine has. 

What about the many towns in Maine lacking emergency shelters altogether? This law requires them to dip into general assistance funds and provide housing at nearby hotels or motels until, ideally, they get back on their feet. Every Maine town is provided with general assistance funds; 70% of the funds will be reimbursed, but the town is responsible for paying the remaining 30%. 

Senator Ben Chipman of Portland has sponsored the legislation of the law because of the “measurable impact” he believes it will have on Portland. Chipman originally sponsored the legislation of the law three years ago, but it was vetoed by Governor LePage. Chipman brought it up again this year because of his passion for helping those with low income. 

The majority of homeless people in Portland came to Portland to access its shelters. “One-third of people checking into Portland homeless shelters are Maine residents not originally from Portland,” said Chipman, “An additional one-third are people who are not from Maine.” 

When towns displace their homeless residents into Portland, they do not only overcrowd Portland’s shelters, they also harm their homeless residents. “Homeless people have friends, family and support in their towns,” said Chipman, “When their town does not help them, they are forced to relocate and are separated from everything they know, which makes it even harder to get back on their feet.” 

Portland has attempted to accommodate the influx of homeless people by opening overflow shelters. Portland police officer, Jeff Tulley, says that during the colder months of the year, the Oxford street shelter fills up quickly. And in the overflow shelters, conditions are not up to par. 

“Overflow shelters have gym mats,” said Tulley. “That’s their bed. Less than an inch piece of foam, with 15 people crammed in each room.” The overflow shelters also fill up and police officers struggle to find a place for homeless people to sleep for the night. Officers will check homeless people into hospitals for the night, or will allow them to sleep on benches inside the police station “just to give them a warm place for the night,” said Tulley. 

A homeless man in Portland, who has chosen to remain anonymous, is one of many who came to Portland because of their shelters. Originally from Massachusetts, he has been homeless, hitchhiking across the country for five years.  

“I used to live in Skid Row [in Los Angeles, CA]. I’d rather walk through Skid Row with $1 million in my pocket than the Bayside neighborhood,” said the man. “People in the Bayside neighborhood would immediately stab me, because they’re all so desperate for their next high or just money in general. I hope this law changes that.”

There have been many times where this homeless man has slept on the streets instead of going to a shelter because they are full. He says that while the overflow shelters are less developed, he prefers them to the main shelters,“People are constantly shooting up and overdosing in the bathrooms. I do not want to stay in the homeless shelters – to avoid that because of my own substance abuse problems. I’d rather stay in an overflow shelter where there aren’t as many private places that people can get high in.” 

Tulley was unaware of the new law, as are the majority of homeless people throughout Maine. The Maine Equal Justice Partners, an organization that testified in support of the bill in April, are working to hang up flyers throughout Maine to make homeless people aware of their rights. 

It is too early to see a change in Portland but towns will abide to the new law, as long as homeless residents seek general assistance through their own town, said Chipman. According to Chipman, by spring the homeless population in Portland will be significantly reduced.

HOMELESSNESS THROUGHOUT THE UNITED STATES Homelessness is a major problem in Portland, and throughout the U.S. Most homelessness occurs in major cities, but homeless people reside in almost every town in the U.S. This is because of a lack of policies and laws to prevent and help homelessness.

According to a statement made by the White House, “Over half a million people go homeless on a single night in the United States.” The majority -65%- of homeless people are found in emergency shelters, but the remaining 35% are found sleeping on the streets. 

People most often find themselves in a housing crisis because of another hardship in their lives, usually substance abuse and/or mental health problems. There are several factors that have led to a rise in homelessness throughout the U.S., other than personal situations homeless people have been facing.

Overregulation of housing markets in the U.S. has increasingly grown more and more expensive, making it incredibly difficult to secure housing for a family. The White House estimates that if the 11 metropolitan areas with significantly supply-constrained housing markets were deregulated, overall homelessness in the United States would fall by 13 percent. 

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Homeless on bench, Wikimedia Commons photo by Tomas Castelazo

Deregulation would most greatly impact larger cities. For example, deregulation would decrease homelessness in San Francisco by 54%, and homelessness in New York City by 23%. Tolerable conditions for sleeping outside, the warmest places attract a higher homeless population. This is also true in Maine. 

According to Tulley, Portland’s emergency shelters do not fill up as fast during the warmer months of the year. In Portland, there are also many homeless camps set up during the warmer months. While building Westbrook’s new concert venue, Rock Row, police officers found tons of homeless people camping out in tents.

A lack of policies policing street activities has also led to many homeless people camping out. Boston, New York City, and Washington D.C. all have something called a right-to-shelter policy, guaranteeing shelter of some kind immediately. All three of these cities have 2.7 times the amount of sheltered homeless people. Shelter is absolutely necessary, but policies like this have led to an increase in homelessness. 

Prevalence of individual-level demand factors in the population, substance abuse and mental health as mentioned previously, are two of the root causes of homelessness. Other things that cause an individual to become homeless are histories of incarceration, low incomes, and weak social connections. Without proper resources for these people to improve their current situation, homelessness becomes almost inevitable. 

Addicts will choose their next high over next month’s rent. Ex-convicts struggle to reintegrate into society because of how horrifying their time incarcerated was. People with severe mental illness are most susceptible to three main causes of homelessness: poverty, disaffiliation, and personal vulnerability. People with mental illness are often unable to secure employment, which will lead to no way to pay for housing. 

Homelessness has become a very big problem not only in Portland, but throughout the country. Maine has taken a step in the right direction by creating a law to help homeless people throughout the state, but there are still many other steps that need to be taken in Maine and beyond.

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