Housing for homeless gets second boost in Portland

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PORTLAND — George Hall took a look around his one-bedroom High Street apartment Thursday afternoon and said, “I can’t afford a lot of things, but what I bought I call my own.”

Hall, 60, is a resident of Elm Terrace, formerly a hospital and a University of Southern Maine office. He’s also an example of what Community Housing of Maine seeks to achieve in creating affordable housing for the city.

City councilors like what they have seen from CHOM, and on June 2 granted the nonprofit agency $25,000 for pre-development work to create as many as 105 housing units for chronically homeless people.

At Elm Terrace, and across the street at Danforth on High, CHOM integrates special needs and chronically homeless tenants with working people who need affordable housing on the peninsula.

CHOM Executive Director Cullen Ryan said the housing programs make no distinction based on tenants’ pasts.

“The fact that individuals will have experienced a period of long-term homelessness will be no more a part of who they are than if they experience athlete’s foot, or a broken leg, at one point in their lives,” Ryan said in CHOM’s response to the city’s request-for-proposals.

The RFP award is almost a doubling down of efforts to enact the “rapid re-housing” approach endorsed in 2011 by the city’s Task Force on Homelessness. Councilors earlier this spring approved an RFP granting $50,000 to nonprofit Avesta Housing that will help pay pre-development costs for Logan Place II.

Both RFPs are financed through the city Housing Trust Fund, and are paid out as reimbursements to the agencies for expenses including appraisals, engineering services, environmental site evaluations, consulting services and market studies.

Avesta Director of Communications Mindy Woerter said the development will specifically target chronically homeless people as does the existing Logan Place, completed in 2005.

But RFP documents estimate Logan Place II will be open in 2017, and the council’s Housing and Community Development Committee believes CHOM could provide some housing sooner. So the committee endorsed the $25,000 RFP, and the entire council followed suit last week.

“The common denominator is when you give people stable housing, they will succeed,” Ryan said Thursday.

As with Avesta’s Logan Place, CHOM provides on-site services for tenants, including substance abuse help, and will look to existing buildings or possible new construction to create the housing units.

Emergency shelters, Ryan added, are “the least efficient way for folks to get their needs met, and the most expensive way.”

Hall, a resident of Elm Terrace since February 2013, does not fit the mold of many chronically homeless people, but he endured a year without permanent housing when he moved to Portland a decade ago.

“I was living out of my suitcase in a shelter,” he said.

With health troubles including three heart attacks and diabetes, Hall moved to Elm Terrace from a nearby building he considered unsafe. About half his $720 monthly Social Security Disability check now goes to rent.

But his gratitude for a safe, accessible place to live has inspired him to set up libraries in both apartment buildings, while also cleaning and decorating the Elm Terrace lobby. He even hopes to establish a residential board of directors.

“When you start with stable housing, everything else comes together,” Ryan said.

CHOM has developed affordable housing in communities including Bangor, Ellsworth, Oakland, Waterville and Westbrook. The agency has both built new and renovated and rehabilitated historic buildings, making use of state and federal tax credits.

At Elm Terrace, the agency did both, renovating the existing building and adding a wing that very much resembles the Mussey Mansion, which once stood at High and Danforth streets. The wing is home to the McAuley Residence, a support program for women and children operated by the Mercy Health System.

The project timeline sets March 10, 2015, for bidding to begin on new construction, while the agency also seeks existing buildings in which to develop four to 10 housing units. The RFP notes CHOM can complete a unit renovation about four months after closing on project financing.

Hall said he would like others to share his good fortune and enjoy their own housing.

“I felt like I won the lottery. This place feels more like a condominium,” he said.

David Harry can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 110 or dharry@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidHarry8.

Sidebar Elements

After being homeless and then living in an apartment building he thought was unsafe, George Hall moved into Elm Terrace in February 2013.

Community Housing of Maine developments line both sides of High and Danforth streets in Portland. The city awarded the agency $25,000 on June 2 to develop as many as 105 more units for chronically homeless people.

Portland City Hall reporter for The Forecaster. Baltimore native, lived in Maine since 1989. A journalist since 2005, covering much of Cumberland and York counties. I joined The Forecaster in 2012.