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'I'd rather be doing anything than this': More people in need turn to panhandling on Portland streets

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'I'd rather be doing anything than this': More people in need turn to panhandling on Portland streets

PORTLAND — Timing is everything, the saying goes, and Maurice "Mo" Allen became homeless at one of the worst times: winter.

Allen, 33, is a Portland resident who lost his restaurant job in the fall. After struggling to pay his bills, he said, he had to vacate his apartment in December. In January, he started panhandling.

Late Sunday afternoon, while the city shivered through more bitter cold, Allen was standing on a median at Somerset and Franklin streets in Bayside. He carried a sign that said "HOMELESS" and asked passing drivers for money to buy food.

"It's really cold," he said, as the Time and Temperature Building visible downtown displayed a reading of 24 degrees. Wind chill was in the low teens. "This has been a rough few days. I'd rather be doing anything than this."

The city is making a special effort to help people like Allen. The Oxford Street Shelter has been opening early, at 1:30 p.m., and its staff have been searching Portland streets for people who are homeless and offering them transportation to the shelter.

"Clearly, (being homeless) in this weather can be a matter of life or death," Douglas Gardner, the city's health and human services director, said Monday. "But there is always a place folks can go, 24 hours a day, seven days a week."

On Wednesday night, teams of volunteers are scheduled to comb shelters, parks, streets and other locations to conduct a "point-in-time" census of homeless individuals in the city. Portland is one of 3,000 jurisdictions that make an annual survey each January, as a requirement of receiving funds for shelters and other assistance from the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Mayor Michael Brennan and HUD Maine Field Office Director William Burney are scheduled to join the volunteers conducting this year's count.

"The point-in-time survey is a critical resource for the city as its helps the community better understand the realities of homelessness," Brennan said in a press release. "At a time when resources are diminishing and numbers are increasing, it is clear that we need to do more for the city's and state's most vulnerable."

An average of 425 people now seek refuge in one of six shelters in Portland each night, according to City Hall data. Since the beginning of the economic downturn four years ago, the number of people seeking shelter has grown 20 percent each year.

"The number is at a level we've never seen before. 'Crisis' is not too strong a word for this situation," Gardner said.

The reason for the continuing rise isn't clear, because there are "multifaceted" causes of homelessness, including job loss and untreated mental illness or substance abuse, he said. But the effect of the crisis is "unsustainable."

The crisis may also be part of the reason for an apparent increase in panhandling.

Not every individual who is homeless asks for money – and vice versa – and the city doesn't keep records of the number of panhandlers. But Gardner said the number "anecdotally" seems to be greater than last year.

Allen, too, said there is a growing number of people in situations similar to his.

"I never realized how many people have to do this," he said as traffic streamed by the median. "There are people almost everywhere now. It's sad."

Six months ago, the City Council rejected a proposal to ban pedestrians from medians except when crossing the street, a measure critics said was a thinly veiled attempt to clamp down on panhandling.

On Sunday, Allen said he'd made about $25 for the day.

"I consider that to be great," he said. "But it all has to do with the public, the generosity of people who happen to be coming by."

A driver once gave Allen a book, he said. Another gave him a pair of hand-warmers. When he collected enough money, he bought himself another pair.

Being homeless in frigid weather requires caution and creativity.

Allen said he takes breaks in a fast-food restaurant, the Whole Foods supermarket across the street, or anywhere he can get out of the cold for a few minutes. At night, he sometimes stays at a friend's home, but usually is at a shelter.

On Sunday, he wore a parka that partially concealed his face, and said he sometimes covered it with a scarf too. "The scarf also helps because to be honest, I feel embarrassed standing here," he said. "But people get creeped out by it."

He said another homeless man, who frequents the St. John Street area, had scraped enough money together to join an inexpensive gym, in order to have access to its bathrooms and a place to get warm.

"That's not a bad idea," Allen said.

As sunset approached, he said it was time for him to walk elsewhere. He'd been standing on the median about a half hour, and it was a much-sought spot.

"There's a guy, he's a father, right over there waiting," he said, pointing to a man who stood next to Whole Foods. "I try to share. We all try to share, even the drinkers."

He shouted to the man, explaining that a reporter was about to leave.

"I was always the kind of guy who would drive by, never give people (standing here) a  buck, because I figured they were going to put it into booze or drugs," Allen said. "When I get back on my feet, and I think I will someday, I'm going to help people out like I've been helped. ... All I need is a job. I've just never been in this situation before."

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