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A deeper look | Realities of homelessness in rural Maine

Rumford community members say the cost of rent has doubled or tripled over the past few years, but salaries have remained relatively the same.

RUMFORD, Maine — As a town of fewer than 6,000 people, nestled in rolling green hills, Rumford isn't a pit stop most Mainers or out-of-staters tend to make. Along a winding river, a paper mill still in action puffs plumes of smoke into the air. The downtown streets are quieter than those near the coast where tourists flock for the summer. This is an example of what rural Maine is like. 

In places like Portland, skyrocketing rent prices aren't entirely a surprise. In fact, in a time of record inflation and recovery from an unprecedented pandemic, it's almost commonplace. But in Rumford, the tale actually isn't entirely different. High living costs are keeping people from having stable housing here, too, in an area with far fewer resources than Maine's bigger cities.

"A lot of times, people come in and they don’t have case management, and they don’t have services," Jana Mason, manager of Rumford's Beacon House Peer Recovery Center, said. "They’re really just kind of lost, not knowing where to go kind of help."

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The Beacon House Peer Recovery Center has been around since 1991. Mason said it acts as a resource for people experiencing challenges related to mental health, substance use, and homelessness. Mason has been in the area since 2006 and says she has seen a growing need when it comes to housing.

"More so lately, we’ve had people coming here, people walking in, saying that they’re homeless," Mason said, adding she has done her best to give those in need things like a sleeping bag or a tent or funds to stay at a campsite. 

Mason says the situation is discouraging, though, and it quite literally hits close to home. 

She says she understands the cost of living is spiking everywhere, but she also believes landlords who are coming in from out of state and raising the cost of rent leaves people on fixed incomes with few options. 

"I just really feel like inside of me, there’s just so much more that our community can do," Mason said.

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One of the families she has helped intermittently is the Johnson's. 

Brian and Jessica Johnson have two children, 8-year-old Jaelynn and 5-year-old Zyon. Jessica says they have been living out of their car for the past two months.

"It just feels endless. It’s endless," Jessica said. "[You] get your hopes up, and then something happens."

Jessica says she and her family gave their 30-day notice on their apartment in Mexico back in April because of health concerns related to sewage water leaking into their bathroom. She says they thought it would be easy to find another apartment in the rural Rumford area, but that hasn't been the case.

"Most places you go look at, you find a three-bedroom [apartment] — they want $1,600 for the month; and then the landlord wants you to make three times the amount of rent," Brian said.

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The Johnson's are living on a fixed income of a little more than $2,200 per month, as Brian, Jessica, and Jaelynn receive disability through Social Security. They also receive a Section 8 Housing Choice Voucher and Emergency Rental Assistance, a program that began in response to the pandemic to help eligible people pay for rent and utilities. 

According to MaineHousing, though, prospective landlords are not required to accept ERA. Jessica says that has been the biggest problem in finding a new place for her family.

"My daughter is going to be turning 9 [on] July 27, and she does know we won’t have a home for her birthday, so it’s kind of discouraging," Jessica said.

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Michelle Worthley grew up in Rumford and is now the director of homeless services at Rumford Group Homes, one of the only shelters in the area. She says one- or two-bedroom apartments used to be between $300 and $600 per month. She says that number now is closer to $900 or $1,000. 

"It was hard enough for families to be able to afford housing then, let alone now," Worthley said. 

Worthley says a lot of people experiencing homelessness in the area come from other municipalities such as Auburn, Farmington, or Lewiston — or even other states, like Connecticut and Massachusetts. But, she says, there's also a portion of this population that has deep, local roots.

"We’ve had a couple of families that have come into the shelter when I first started 10 years ago. Now, their kids are grown up and having kids of their own, [and] they’ve also come back into shelter," Worthley said, regarding the cycle of homelessness and poverty.

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In a lot of ways, rural areas present unique challenges for those experiencing homelessness. 

Joleen Bedard is the executive director of the United Way of Androscoggin County, which also serves Oxford County. She says she believes COVID-19 is to blame for just how much poverty issues have increased.

"I receive calls daily from individuals that are on the verge of homelessness, and it’s heartbreaking," Bedard said.

She says transportation is a big challenge for people in rural areas, since there aren't as many jobs or shelters nearby. In many ways, she says, experiencing homelessness is a double-edged sword for folks. If they don't have a stable place to live and shower and become presentable for a job, it can be harder to get hired. And, thus, the pattern continues.

"The housing market as it is — it’s really difficult, even if you’re gainfully employed to even find an apartment," Bedard said.

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Bedard says anyone in need of help should call, text, or visit the 211 Maine website. She says there, people can find resources for their specific needs in their area.

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