Southern Maine shelters struggle to assist growing homeless population

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PORTLAND — Fifteen minutes before the Oxford Street Shelter begins assigning beds for the night, a line has formed outside. It snakes down the ramp and out into the patio, where men are standing with umbrellas to deflect a light rain. 

Recently, the line has grown longer than it’s ever been, and the main shelter no longer has room for everyone. Those at the end of the line, or who check in late, might have to stay at the Preble Street Resource Center, a day-use facility that has opened up its doors at night to accommodate the overflow. But that space is almost full as well, and shelter officials are trying to come up with “Plan C.”

The situation is the same at other homeless shelters in Cumberland county. In Portland, the Florence House for women and the Family Shelter are often completely full, if not overflowing. At the Tedford Shelter in Brunswick, which unlike Portland does not have a policy of providing housing to everyone, almost 50 adults were turned away in July.

Shelter officials blame it on the economy, on a shortage of low-cost housing or lack of housing vouchers. Whatever the cause, “it certainly feels like it’s growing into a crisis, if it’s not one already,” Josh O’Brien, director of the Oxford Street Shelter, said.

Record numbers

In fiscal year 2011, the Oxford Street Shelter housed close to 1,500 men and more than 200 women and provided nearly 84,000 bed nights – the highest number since 2001. Overflow was used 70 percent of the time, and in July the shelter was over capacity by an average of 31 men every night, according to the shelter’s year-end report.

While technically a men’s shelter, Oxford Street since January has housed the women that Florence House’s 25 emergency beds couldn’t accommodate. In July, an average of 23 women stayed at the men’s shelter each night.

Steve Horton, 53, is one of the men who stayed at Oxford Street last year. Originally from Cape Cod, Horton lived in Massachusetts with his long-time girlfriend until two years ago, he said, when she died from a prescription drug overdose.

After her death, he struggled with depression and anxiety. He lost their house and began living out of his boss’s car, sleeping near the tire shop where he worked. He said his mental illness led him to quit his job, and he bounced around, staying with family in Georgia and Massachusetts until he wound up sleeping on benches in Boston’s South Station.

“Every night, you don’t know if you’re going to wake up,” he said of the experience. “It’s not fun.”

Horton said his daughter finally insisted he check into a hospital, where he was diagnosed with the mental illnesses he believed he already had. After that, he moved into a homeless shelter in New Hampshire, but said he wasn’t getting the support he needed. So he came up to Maine, a place that family members told him had better services. After a brief couch-surfing stint, he came to Oxford Street last September and has been there ever since.

Horton is part of the 15 percent of Oxford Street’s guests who stay for longer than 60 days. More than half stay between four and 60 nights, and less than 2 percent stay for more than 244. About half of them are from Portland, although the percentage of people coming from out of town and out of state has climbed in recent years to 49 percent and 33 percent, respectively.

A new trend is the increase in refugees at Oxford Street. The Family shelter has long hosted refugee families, who made up 23 percent of the shelter population last year. But historically, few adults sought shelter at Oxford Street each year, O’Brien said.

“We might have seen one to two refugees a year in the past, and now we’re talking about 30, 40-plus folks coming over a few month period,” he said.

There are also more homeless women than shelter officials expected, and Florence House has been full almost every night since it opened last April.

Kim, 24, who asked that her last name not be revealed, said she has been staying at Oxford Street because there is no space at the women’s shelter. Originally from Knox County, she said she has been in and out of shelters since she was 18. She has a young daughter, but her mother has custody and Kim hasn’t seen either of them in a while.

In the past, she has rented apartments in Lewiston and Portland, but never for longer than a year due to trouble with roommates.

“If you want to have a roommate,” she said, “you got to know who you can trust.”

But Kim doesn’t like living by herself, so she alternates between staying at the shelter and on friends’ couches. Her most recent stint at Oxford Street began a week ago, and she’s hoping to find an apartment in Portland with her fiance, who is working towards his GED.

Young people are still among the smallest group at Oxford Street, where the average age is between 41 and 55. But that shelter, and the Tedford Shelter in Brunswick, have both seen noticeable increases in homeless 18- to 24-year-olds, which Tedford Housing Executive Director Don Kniseley said can be problematic.

More than other age groups, Kniseley said, the young are hard to place in apartments because many of them have never had their own places and don’t manage the situation well. They tend to stay at the shelter a long time, he said, and clash with shelter employees more than older guests.

“We’re not sure what’s going to happen with them,” he said of the young people now at Tedford.

Housing shortage

Shelter officials in Portland attribute much of the increase in the homeless population to a decrease in low-cost housing.

According to Bob Duranleau, director of social services at the city’s Health and Human Services Department, there are simply more people vying for fewer apartments.

“The rental market has become so tight in the past six months, it’s really had a huge impact on our ability to place people,” he said.

Because the market is tighter, people who wouldn’t ordinarily consider single-room occupancies – efficiency apartments that are the go-to for many homeless adults – are now looking for them. That means landlords can choose from more tenants, and be pickier.

According to Oxford Street’s O’Brien, more property owners are now asking for security deposits, rental histories and background checks – factors that work against the homeless.

“We’re now competing with a different level of other folks looking for housing than we have before, and it’s making it a significant challenge. … We have to make a real compelling argument that they’ll be good tenants,” he said.

Housing homeless women has proved to be particularly challenging for shelter officials.

Patty Robinson, Florence House’s coordinator, said the women’s shelter just isn’t big enough, and wasn’t designed to accommodate the number of women who need housing. 

When the women’s shelter was being planned, the former YWCA still offered 25 shelter beds and 35 single-room occupancies, so there wasn’t a need for a larger women’s shelter. With the Eastland Park Hotel under new ownership, another 50 single-room occupancies are disappearing.

Even with an abundance of apartments, housing women can be trickier than housing men, Robinson said, because women must feel safe in an apartment and won’t move in if they don’t. Robinson said that can make it harder to find a place that works, especially for a woman who has been a victim of domestic violence.

While shelter staff can’t do anything about the housing shortage, they can be better prepared to know who is ready to move should something open up. To that effect, the Oxford Street Shelter has added three additional housing counselors in the past month.

Unlike Portland, Brunswick has no housing shortage. With the departure of thousands of former Brunswick Naval Air Station employees and servicemen, there is no lack of housing in the area, according to Tedford Housing’s Kniseley.

“Generally, the rental market has softened,” he said, and there has been an increase in vacancy rates. But with the average monthly rent in Brunswick at $714, according to 2009 Census figures, many people can’t afford what’s available and there is a long wait for subsidized housing vouchers, even though the Brunswick Housing Authority has a preference for homeless families.

Back in Portland, Steve Horton has been waiting to be assigned an apartment for almost a year. His anxiety prevents him from working, so he spends a lot of time walking around the city and going to the library.

Getting woken up in the middle of the night, sleeping on a mat on the floor – these things don’t bother him as much as the waiting.

The worst part, he said, is “finding something to do with your time.”

Emily Guerin can be reached at 781-3661 ext.123 or Follow her on Twitter: @guerinemily.

Sidebar Elements

A man sleeps on a bench on Congress Street in Portland last week.

Josh O’Brien, director of the Oxford Street Shelter, and Tara Snider, weekend supervisor, talk in the day room before opening it up to guests at night. At night, the day room is used by men who cannot sleep on mats on the floor and require cots.

A recent scene outside the Oxford Street Shelter in Portland, five minutes before intake begins.