Experts connect housing to health at Brunswick homelessness discussion

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BRUNSWICK — The critical need to house individuals and families affordably as a path to health and stability took the limelight Oct. 18 in the first of Curtis Memorial Library’s three-part community conversation series on affordable housing.

Last week’s 90-minute forum, which focused on housing vulnerability and homelessness, featured three speakers: James Mayall, policy analyst with the Maine Center for Economic Policy; Cullen Ryan, executive director of Community Housing of Maine, and chairman of the Statewide Homelessness Council; and Giff Jamison, Tedford Housing’s director of operations.

Mayall, noting his work with data and statistics, said despite the economic recovery since the Great Recession of 2008, for many Mainers there has not been much improvement. A Federal Reserve survey found that 45 percent of Maine residents lacked enough savings to even cover a $400 emergency expense.

“That’s a pretty good indicator from my perspective of the number of Mainers who are really struggling to make ends meet, and who are working paycheck to paycheck,” Mayall said. “There are way too many families in Maine who just can’t make those unexpected expenses.”

Stagnant wages amid rising costs like health care and child care and a lack of jobs that pay a good living wage are two symptoms of the problem. About 10 percent of people with jobs don’t have enough money to put enough food on the table, Mayall added.

The current system keeps many people trapped in poverty, a state in which about 13 percent of Mainers – about 170,000 people – exist, Ryan said. Of that number, nearly 6,500 were found to be homeless, he noted, although others at the meeting thought the number to be much higher since it can be difficult to tally every person in limbo.

“That group that falls into homelessness is really facing an even more dire and complex array of challenges in order to get themselves out,” Cullen said.

Many people are homeless for a short period of time due to a change in circumstances, but others are chronically homeless – six months or longer, he explained. Shelters that might help a person who needs a bed for a night or two remain full as a result of long-term users.

“We set about trying to house these folks,” Cullen said, noting that Community Housing managed to reduce a group of 262 long-timers down to 63 in the past five years. “We’ve proven that if we want to end homelessness among a particular population, we can do it.”

And the benefits are tremendous.

“When we get people into housing, they get well,” Cullen said. “No one does well without housing, and everyone does their best when they have housing.”

The longer people are caught in the stress-filled trauma of homelessness, the more apt they are to experience psychosis, he said. The trend away from institutionalizing such people began to shift in the 1960s, but in releasing them “we never followed through on the promise that we made to these individuals, to keep them safe by putting them in housing, and providing adequate health care services for them,” he explained.

Jamison could attest to the improvements that providing support can have on people in need. A client who was psychotic and in need of a place to stay about four years ago was referred to Tedford, but the man had “really burned his bridges at some of the shelters.”

But being placed in permanent housing and receiving the support he needed, “today he is thriving,” Jamison said. “He’s been stable for four years. He was just in the office today; we were talking about the Red Sox. It’s like a totally different guy.”

Once they’re housed, they tend to stay that way, Jamison noted. In the most recent fiscal year only 6 percent of individuals Tedford placed in permanent housing returned to homelessness, while none of the families went back on the streets, he said.

The second community conversation, dubbed “the Local Landscape,” features John Hodge, executive director of the Brunswick and Topsham Housing Authority; Kevin Bunker of Developers Collaborative; and Jane Millett, a Brunswick town councilor and realtor.

That meeting, and the third and final forum will take place at the library at 6 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 30, and Thursday, Nov. 29, respectively. Log onto curtislibrary.com/housing for more information.

Alex Lear can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 113 or alear@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @learics.

James Myall of the Maine Center for Economic Policy, at left, speaks Oct. 18 at a Curtis Memorial Library forum on affordable housing. Cullen Ryan of Community Housing of Maine and Giff Jamison, Tedford Housing’s director of operations, also spoke at the Brunswick event.

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A Maine native and Colby College graduate, Alex has been covering coastal communities since 2001, and currently handles Bath, Topsham, Cumberland, and North Yarmouth. He and his wife, Lauren, live in the Portland area, and Alex recently released his third album of original music.