Portland panel to create a long-term plan to address homelessness

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PORTLAND — A 15-member task force is being assembled to come up with a long-term plan to prevent homelessness in the city.

The goal of the group is to provide a multi-year plan, with specific action steps, by next June that is in line with current state and federal plans.

So far, only the leaders of the task force have been identified: City Councilor Dory Waxman, Maine Red Claws President and General Manager Jon Jennings, and United Way of Greater Portland President and Chief Executive Officer Suzanne McCormick.

Waxman said she has been interested in this project for several years, but employees at the city’s Health and Human Services Department have been too busy dealing with increasing demand for services to lay the groundwork.

According to a City Council resolution establishing the task force, homelessness in Portland has increased by 20 percent since the recession started in 2008. People who are homeless for the first time account for more than a third of the increase.

Waxman leads the council’s Health and Recreation Committee, which receives monthly updates about shelter use. Recent reports show there is an increasing number of homeless families and veterans who are unable to find work after getting out of the military.

“The middle (class) is sliding down,” Waxman said. “More families are becoming homeless. I thought, we have to do this. This can’t wait.”

The task force will consist of two content experts, two homeless service providers, two representatives from health-care organizations, two business leaders, two community members, a housing developer and a City Council representative.

The plan is expected to focus on health care, supportive and affordable housing, and prevention. The task force will convene a larger group of stakeholders for public input.

Waxman, whose term on the council ends in December, will remain on the committee as a community member and co-chairwoman.

HHS Director Douglas Gardner said the plan will include input from Westbrook and South Portland, cities with whom Portland has a working relationship on the problem of homelessness.

Gardiner said Westbrook and South Portland are actively engaged with Portland’s homeless programs and have contracts to reimburse the city for placements that require city staff. Those communities also work to bring their residents back home whenever possible, he said.

Gardiner said from Nov. 1, 2010, to Nov. 1, 2011, Portland has helped 16 Westbrook families and 12 South Portland families. Seven of those families have returned to their hometowns, while eight have established full residency in Portland, he said.

Since homelessness is a regional problem, Gardiner said, a regional solution makes sense.

“We want to make sure we’re using, in the greater Portland area, all the resources that are available to us to prevent and end homelessness,” he said.

Homelessness was also a major issue during the city’s recent mayoral election campaign. In addition to advocating for a regional approach, many candidates agreed that better coordination of service providers and the involvement of the business community were needed.

That seems to be where the task force will be heading.

Jennings, of the Red Claws, said he jumped at the chance to help lead the group. Having served as a White House fellow for Housing and Urban Development under President Bill Clinton, Jennings said he has experience and expertise on federal programs.

But more than that, Jennings said he hopes his involvement as a business representative will inspire other business leaders to take an active role in preventing homelessness.

“I think those of us in the private sector have a responsibility to act,” he said. “This is a critical issue. This is not putting on the Fourth of July. This is making sure our fellow citizens … have shelter until they can get back on their feet.”

McCormick, of the United Way, said there is a lot of misinformation about the causes of homeless. She is confident the task force will be able to educate the public.

“It’s a really good opportunity to raise public awareness about the issues and facts related to homeless,” she said.

McCormick said the diverse stakeholder group will seek to identify a continuum of long-term services that need to be provided and figure out how to fill any service gaps.

Waxman said the plan will include local strategies that are in line with best practices contained in existing plans, such as the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness’s “Opening Doors 2010,” the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs’ “Five Year Plan to End Homelessness Among Veterans,” and the state’s Homeless Council’s “Plan to End and Prevent Homelessness.”

That alignment may make it easier to receive grants. “Maybe we can get better funding for what we’re doing now,” she said.

Waxman said area nonprofits are doing everything they can to meet the demand for services, but they can use additional help – whether from private businesses or federal sources.

“I think (businesses) are willing to help,” she said. “If we have something that we can collectively put together, we will be stronger together.”

Randy Billings can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or rbillings@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @randybillings