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Economic ripple adds to first-time homelessness in Portland

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Economic ripple adds to first-time homelessness in Portland

PORTLAND — For Rose Masse, the mother of a 6-year-old son, the road to being homeless began last spring, when her landlord was experiencing personal and financial problems.

"This house was a disorderly house for a long time, but it really went downhill when he couldn't afford to take care of the property," she said of her former apartment in a two-family Washburn Avenue house, where she had lived since 2004.

"Then sewage got in the basement, code enforcement got wind of it, and the house was shut down," Masse said. "I was given four days to move out."

Masse, 48, had few options. Unemployed and with a severe learning disability, she receives vouchers from a federal housing program to pay her rent. But she already had tried unsuccessfully to find a new apartment for more than three years, she said.

"I must have made 1,000 calls to landlords in that time," she said. "With the voucher, I still can't compete for apartments."

As she packed her belongings, Masse was told she could find emergency housing at the city's Family Shelter on Chestnut Street. But when she contacted the shelter, she was repeatedly told that it was filled to capacity.

She and her son ended up staying temporarily with friends and family members. Today, they live in a screen house in a Gorham back yard.

"We're camping out; we're really nomads," she said.

Masse's experience is a sign of the times.

There's no data to quantify the number of individuals who have become homeless because of landlords who can't afford to maintain their buildings, according to Douglas Gardner, director of the city's Health and Human Services Department. But as the economic downturn continues, he said, it's not surprising that homelessness may be caused by such a "ripple effect."

"Economics is still the top driver of homelessness in Portland," Gardner said, noting that roughly a third of clients at city shelters are experiencing homelessness for the first time.

Portland's homeless population continues to balloon – the average number of people who turned to shelters each night jumped by more than 50 between May and June, reaching an all-time high of 411. That's a 16 percent increase over the average number for the previous June.

Meanwhile, the city struggles to keep up with the pace. For example, when the Chestnut Street shelter is full, family members in need are housed in hotel rooms, Gardner said. In June, an average of five individuals per night were housed this way.

"We don't turn anyone away," he said.

Masse said she was not offered that alternative when she was told the Chestnut Street shelter was full, despite the shelter policy.

Gardner said her case might be an "anomaly."

"We always ask if folks have other options or resources that could keep them from entering the Family Shelter," Gardner said. "I don't know the specifics of this particular case, but ... it sounds like those other options may have included family or friends."

While the specifics may be unclear, Masse's experience highlights the need for careful, case-by-case assessment of each individual's needs – an approach the city is taking in its response to homelessness, Gardner said.

"There's not one reason for homelessness," he said, "and we don't take a one-size-fits-all approach."

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