PORTLAND, Maine — Homelessness isn't a new issue, but the pandemic lasting a year and a half and counting has created new and unprecedented challenges. People from all walks of life have been impacted, and one group that is particularly at risk is veterans.
According to the Portland-based nonprofit Preble Street, there has been an 84-percent increase in veteran homelessness in Maine since the pandemic began. With the additional housing crisis, the amount of time it now takes to connect people experiencing homelessness to housing has gone from an average of 86 days to 232 days.
Preble Street says there are also 29 more veterans in Maine experiencing unsheltered homelessness (which is connected to a higher risk of serious health effects) than pre-COVID-19.
Preble Street is leading a new campaign called "100 Veterans Challenge: Unlocking Homes for Heroes," which is designed to house 100 Maine Veterans in 100 days—so, by Veteran's Day 2021, since the initiative began August 3.
"We really wanted to kind of work together as a system to pull our resources and try to get as many Veterans housed as possible," Dan Hodgkins, the senior director of Veterans housing services at Preble Street, said. The nonprofit is working with Easterseals, Furniture Friends, the Maine Bureau of Veterans' Services, Maine Veterans in Need, Maine Veterans of Foreign Wars, the Veterans Administration, Veterans Inc., Volunteers of America Northern New England, and Welcome to Housing to make it happen.
Hodgkins said housing is critical for people's basic needs and safety. "We really believe all people—and veterans, especially—deserve the dignity and respect of having housing."
Hodgkins and his team are asking landlords to consider partnering with Preble Street to make this campaign possible. Hodgkins says he recognizes that the past year or so has been tough financially for landlords, but says there are incentives in place. One of those incentives is a landlord risk mitigation fund, which includes funding to cover any tenant that is housed via this initiative. It provides an extra $1,500 in and above the security deposit, if rent is unpaid, or if there is damage after the first year of the lease. Hodgkins says Preble Street also won't send a veteran to a landlord unless they have some type of financial plan to afford housing.
"It's pretty much housing people that fought for your country," Bez Kargar, owner of Kargar Enterprise, said. He is one landlord that will be participating in this initiative, saying that housing veterans is his way of giving back to them.
"They actually appreciate that they're in a home," Kargar noted.
The impact that housing can have is huge—that's something United States Army Veteran Danielle Jefferson can attest to. She and her husband moved to Maine from Florida three months ago and finally found housing through Preble Street a few weeks ago.
"It's just kind of a weight taken off ... just lightening the load up, you know?" Jefferson expressed. For her, it's been a long time coming. She says she has experienced serious "lows" in her life after leaving service in the early 2000s and being able to see a "light" more recently has made a difference.
"Now, I can breathe a little," Jefferson said. "I still have work to put in."
Jefferson says one thing she and her husband could still use help with is furniture and appliances. Their living room is empty, except for a couple of fold-up yard chairs. Furniture Friends, a furniture bank and partner in the "100 Veteran Challenge," addresses this part of the issue, providing free, community-donated furniture to people who need it for their homes.
"A roof over someone's head is important, but it's not the only thing that keeps them off the streets," Jenn McAdoo, the executive director of Furniture Friends, said. Typically, the organization only serves southern Maine, but for this campaign, they'll be delivering furniture to veterans all over the state, regardless of location.
"If we all step up and do what little we can, we can get people into housing, hopefully in the next 100 days," McAdoo said.