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Portland's approach to homelessness: Too little, too late?

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Portland's approach to homelessness: Too little, too late?

PORTLAND — Homelessness is on the minds of many people these days.

An average of 444 people seek housing each night in the city's shelters, which have been overfilled for over a year, according to the most recent data from the Department of Heath and Human Services.

City councilors are scheduled to consider a sweeping plan to address the problem at the council's Nov. 5 meeting.

State and local political candidates touted their own ideas at public forums held over the past month at the Preble Street Soup Kitchen.

And the University of Southern Maine will host a panel discussion of homelessness issues at a Friday evening gala for the university's school of social work.

But despite all the talk, potential solutions to the problem remain elusive.

One of the roadblocks, most experts agree, is the lack of housing in Portland. Indeed, the recommendations of the city's Homeless Prevention Task Force, which the council discusses next week, include building three, 35-unit housing facilities.

That's in keeping with the "housing-first" approach, a school of thought that emphasizes finding a place for homeless individuals to live even before addressing other problems, such as mental illness or substance abuse.

"The paradigm of a housing-first system is simply that providing stable and permanent housing is the first priority for people in crisis," the task force said in its report.

But one expert wonders whether the city's new plan may be a case of doing too little, too late.

"(Portland) should have been on this decades ago," said David Wagner, a USM professor and national expert on homelessness who is keynoting the Friday panel discussion.

Creating such large facilities dedicated to housing homeless individuals "is going back to the poor-house concept ... that is based on economies of scale," Wagner said. "Even New York City moved away from that years ago."

Instead, Wagner said that communities such as Portland should look to integrate homeless housing within smaller, existing buildings. Larger, dedicated facilities "segregate the poor," who are often not welcomed by neighborhood residents, he said.

Communities in York County have had more success addressing homelessness because they gradually adopted the housing-first model in the 1990s, while Portland was focused on providing services, according to Wagner.

And housing-first is only part of the solution.

"Getting someone housed, that's the easy part. After you find housing, then the real work begins," said Tom Ptacek, who was homeless for a year and now is an advocate for Preble Street's Homeless Voices for Justice. "If someone has addiction issues or other problems, just putting him inside a room isn't going to work."

Still, Ptacek supports the task force's plan, especially its recommendation of increasing the use of case managers to work one-on-one with homeless individuals.

"If you're on the precipice (of being homeless), having someone there and figuring out specifically what you need can keep you from falling off that cliff," he said.

William Hall can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 106 or whall@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @hallwilliam4.