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Living on the margins: Portland mayoral candidates discuss homelessness, immigrant issues

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Living on the margins: Portland mayoral candidates discuss homelessness, immigrant issues

Second in a weekly series on where Portland's mayoral candidates stand on issues facing the city.

PORTLAND — A stagnant, if not shrinking, economy is making it difficult for many residents to get by from day to day.

Social services provided by the city and its nonprofits are struggling to keep up with increased demand at a time with state and national officials are pulling back funding.

The Preble Street Resource Center issued a statement Sept. 15 citing a U.S. Department of Agriculture Survey saying 16.5 percent of Maine households have very low food security – the sixth highest in the nation. About 12.5 percent of Mainers live in poverty and 6.8 percent have serious hunger issues, the center said.

This week, the 15 candidates running for mayor offered their ideas for providing better services to the city's homeless, working poor and immigrant populations.

While some said the mayor must advocate for more funding in Augusta and Washington, D.C., others said the city should look at establishing a residency requirement to make sure social services are being provided to Portlanders first.

In confronting challenges faced by immigrants and other working people who are one paycheck away from being homeless, several candidates said the city needs encourage more affordable housing in the form of studio apartments, not condos, as well as livable-wage jobs.

Candidates mostly said more outreach to marginalized populations is necessary, not only to learn about their needs, but also to better integrate them into society. More English language learning opportunities for immigrants are needed to break down the language barrier, they said.

Michael Brennan, a former state senator who has worked on homelessness and hunger issues for the last 30 years, said the city has done well working with nonprofit groups to address homelessness and providing food and shelter to those in need.

But Brennan, 58, said services are over capacity. He said the city needs more "housing-first" options, like the Florence House and Logan Place, which provides the homeless with a stable, supportive environment to deal with mental health and substance abuse issues, so they can get back on their feet.

That position was echoed by Markos Miller and by Jodie Lapchick, who said "it actually costs less to house the homeless that it does to keep them on the streets."

Like most candidates, Brennan said the city should form partnerships with colleges and other groups to provide better English language training to immigrants. But he said the city should also advocate for state to be more flexible with residents who have foreign licenses and degrees so they can find work.

Brennan said he worked with Sen. Justin Alfond, D-Portland, on recent legislation to expand federally reimbursed summer food programs to poor children. He also worked with Rep. Mark Dion, D-Portland, on a bill that would give a tax credit to farmers who contribute to food pantries, but that bill was carried over to the Legislature's next session.

Candidate Ethan Strimling, a former Democratic state senator, quoted President John F. Kennedy on these issues, saying "the best social program is a job."

Strimling, the 43-year-old chief executive officer of LearningWorks, noted six of his former students, immigrants and at-risk youth, were hired by Reny's department store when it opened last year on Congress Street. He also highlighted the need for more English learning opportunities.

Strimling said "changing the culture at City Hall" would lead to more economic development, which will allow those who are able to work to get off social programs, freeing up resources for the chronically homeless.

City Councilor Nicholas Mavodones Jr., a Democrat who is serving his second term as the City Council-appointed mayor, also believes jobs are the best answer for those struggling with poverty and hunger. He said the best way to attract businesses to Portland is by offering a "predictable system" in City Hall that has good customer service for prospective businesses.

Mavodones, 51, said he believes the city has a good track record of working with the community to address immigrant and homeless issues. While city staff regularly reaches out to immigrant populations, he said communication can always be improved, and expects that will come with having a full-time mayor.

John Eder, a Green-Independent who works in social services, said Portland has become a regional magnet for its social services. The only long-term solution, he said, is working with neighboring communities toward a regional solution.

In the near-term, Eder, 42, said the city should consider a residency requirement, so Portlanders are first in line for services. Requiring someone to prove a six-month residency is "not off the table," he said.

Meanwhile, the city should build more affordable housing, said Eder, who committed to getting 1,000 affordable housing units, mostly in Bayside, underway in his first term. He would also require the city and businesses that receive tax breaks or other financial assistance from the city to pay living-wage jobs to their employees. 

Eder said he would continue to advocate for immigrant voting rights.

Democrat Jed Rathband, who owns a consulting firm, also highlighted the need for more affordable housing. He said there is "a staggering lack of leadership" in the redevelopment of about two acres of city land on Munjoy Hill into only 16 condos, when there could be 40 rental units.

Rathband, 39, said he would pitch the city's immigrant and blue collar workforce to light and industrial manufacturing companies. He said immigrants are "the steroids of economic development," and suggested amending the city's food cart ordinance to establish a "food cart row" along Fox Street, a popular recreation site in Bayside.

With state and federal grants shrinking, City Councilor David Marshall, a Green-Independent, said he would refocus the city's Community Development Block Grant program on strengthening the city's safety net. He noted his early and continued support of the city's HOME team, which takes to the streets to help the homeless before they end up in the hospital.

To better integrate immigrants and promote cultural understanding, Marshall, 33, said he would encourage the city to hire more immigrant workers both in City Hall and as front-line emergency responders. 

Marshall said he would focus on "green jobs" and the creative economy for economic development and encourage more apartments downtown to help the working poor.

Councilor Jill Duson, a 57-year-old Democrat, said it's hard to measure whether the city is doing enough to address the needs of the homeless and immigrant populations. She said the city should be a "one-stop information source" in connecting people with social service agencies. Elected officials are "a little removed" from needy populations, Duson said.

Like Eder, Republican Richard Dodge and Christopher Vail (unenrolled) believe services should be provided to Portland residents first. Vail, 40, would like those seeking services to fill out a form declaring Portland their home; Dodge, 59, said he would "buy them a bus ticket" back to where they came from.

But Miller, a teacher, said it is "a myth" that homeless people are bused into the city for its services and that those on welfare abuse the system. "There needs to be a lot of education there," he said.

Miller, 43, said he would advocate for more state funding for social services. He would also call on neighboring communities to better serve their residents.

Miller, who helps lead the Unity Project at Deering High School, said a "respectful but honest dialog" is needed between stakeholders to confront immigrant and homeless issues as a community, rather than placing the responsibility on individuals.

Democrat Ralph Carmona, 60, said the city works well with state and local service providers. But he said he would make a "business argument" to corporate CEOs about the need to address homeless and immigrant issues. He would seek their support in lobbying state and national legislation, he said.

Brennan also believes involving charitable arms of corporations is key to helping stressed social service agencies.

Charles Bragdon, 43, said the city gives "too many handouts, (and) not enough hand-ups" to those in need. He said he'd like to work with small businesses to create an apprenticeship program to put able-bodied people to work.

Hamzaa Haadoow, who works at Goodwill, said the language barrier is the biggest obstacle for immigrants who hold professional degrees from their homeland and want to work. The 37-year-old said the city should be "a bridge" connecting people with services.

Vail, a firefighter, said the mayor should get social service agencies, police officers, firefighters, emergency responders, hospitals and businesses to sit at the same table to coordinate services.

That group, as well as subgroups representing the homeless and immigrant populations, should be treated like neighborhood organizations, and the city should communicate with them regularly, he said.

Democrat Peter Bryant, 68, said the city should focus its resources, especially for food and shelter, on children and single mothers.

Randy Billings can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or rbillings@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @randybillings