PORTLAND, Maine — Maine lawmakers are set to vote on two independent pieces of legislation that would create a program that advocates believe could solve the state's chronic homelessness crisis.
LD 2 would create a Housing First program within Maine's Department of Health and Human Services. A portion of Gov. Janet Mills' change package would do the same.
"Housing First is a proven model of addressing homelessness by quickly rehousing people experiencing homelessness and ensuring that they have access to permanent housing and supportive services," according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
The goal is to help people address their mental and physical health struggles with 24/7 care available on-site, without the stress of finding food or shelter.
Maine already has three of these Housing First apartment buildings. All of them are in Portland, operated by Avesta Housing, and staffed by Preble Street case workers: Logan Place, built in 2005; Florence House, built in 2010; and Huston Commons, built in 2017.
These legislative proposals come as Maine, especially the city of Portland, is dealing with unprecedented levels of people who have no place to take shelter. In the city, municipal and nonprofit shelters are at or near capacity nearly every night.
City staff report housing an average of roughly 1,200 people in municipal shelters alone nearly every night. Compounding the squeeze is the number of asylum seekers coming to the city. More than 1,500 have arrived since Jan. 1, 2023. In the city's brand new Homeless Services Center, which opened in March, more than 60 percent of the people staying there are asylum seekers, meaning those who are chronically homeless have nowhere to go.
Community partners like Preble Street and Avesta Housing say they are ready to go to work; people living on the streets say they cannot wait.
"I never thought in a million years I was the person who would give the homeless people money. I never thought I'd be one of those people," Kimmy Hardt, a 60-year-old woman who has been chronically homeless for more than two years, said.
Hardt currently lives in a small tent alongside a handful of others in a parking lot on Marginal Way in Portland. She and the others moved there after city staff told them they could no longer camp on the Bayside Trail near Trader Joe's.
"It may not have four walls and a bathroom and all that, but it's my home," Hardt said of her tent. "Some people look at you like you're an animal, like we choose this life. I didn't [expletive] choose this life."
The stories of how Hardt and all her neighbors became homeless share similar themes: physical and mental health struggles, trauma, and substance use.
"I still use crack-cocaine," Hardt said. "I use it for emotional pain. Maybe that'll happen when I get housing. Maybe I won't need it anymore."
Hardt's life, however, is about to change. She said she is moving into Florence House soon.
"I didn't really believe it until I went to my case management worker, and he said, 'It's true.'"
What makes Housing First properties such as Florence House effective for the chronically homeless is the 24/7 wraparound services, including social work, provided by Preble Street.
The first site of its kind in Maine was Logan Place, built in 2005.
"It transformed this agency in a lot of ways, where we said, 'OK, this is the single best solution to chronic homelessness—period,'" Mark Swann, executive director of Preble Street, said.
Swann said Logan Place was a test, knowing the agency had to prove this model worked. He and other advocates have said the current system is unsustainable, ineffective, and inhumane.
"They were bouncing from jail to shelter to sleeping outside, to detox, back to jail, back to another shelter, bouncing around and not getting better. So not only were they costing all those systems money, it was it was tragic. It wasn't working," Swann said.
Public Safety Commissioner Mike Sauschuck was rising through the ranks in the Portland Police Department as Logan Place opened.
"I'm a street sergeant working patrol in Portland, and I'm like, 'Wait a second. So you're going to put 30 of my super utilizers people that we literally deal with every day under one roof, and it's all going to work out just fine.'"
Preble Street studied the effect of opening Logan Place.
Those 30 tenants experienced:
- 88 percent fewer nights in jail
- 67 percent fewer emergency room visits
- 81 percent fewer contacts with police
- 66 percent fewer ambulance trips
- 79 percent fewer detox program visits
"Not only look how much money we're saving but spending what we spend better, like actually solving something," Swann said.
"You hear a lot about win-win scenarios. You seldom see those," Sauschuck said. "To me, this is one of those scenarios where it's incredibly, incredibly effective. I've seen it over and over and over."
The three facilities compromise 85 units of housing: 85 people breaking the cycle of homelessness.
Sara, a domestic violence survivor who asked not to be identified by her real name, said she had been chronically homeless for 22 years.
"When you wake up in the morning, you first wake up, and it's like, thank God I'm still alive," she said. "You're an outcast. The community really doesn't approve of us. I've been attacked many times out there by housed people, and now that's part of the life, and uncertainty of food, shelter, the things that everybody takes for granted, like a shower."
Sara just moved into Huston Commons in mid-May.
"I'd lost probably 15 people last month, month and a half, have died, and that's a low number. We are dropping almost one a day, dying out there. These are my friends. I don't want them to be the next ones out there found dead," Sara said. "It saved my life."
"The reality here is it's not just a city of Portland problem, and yet I think a lot of that burden has come down to them," Sauschuck said.
People from all over the state come to Portland for services like shelters and health care.
Preble Street estimates the state needs 400 more units, equivalent to 12 to 15 apartment buildings across Maine.
"I think it would absolutely help. I mean, that, that scale, it sounds about right, but probably could even be larger when you think of the sheer numbers," Kristen Dow, director of Portland's Health and Human Services Department, said.
How will the state pay for all this?
Avesta Housing CEO Rebecca Hatfield said there are three sources of funding: MaineHousing pays to construct the buildings, and the Department of Housing and Urban Development pays part of the cost of rent.
What remains is covering the cost of the 24/7 social work services.
"It's the last and the most critical piece of the pie," Hatfield said. "Without the services, you will not see the same level of success. That’s the point of this model. The idea is once they receive housing, they can then focus on the many other things in their lives that they need support with."
Tenants pay 30 percent of their income on rent. They are not allowed to use illegal drugs, but they are not required to be sober.
"You move in as-is, and then you're connected with the services that you need and no one's going to take that housing away from you because of because you're not sober yet or because you are managing various things in your life. And so that's the reason why it's successful," Hatfield said.
"Once you stabilize somebody in an atmosphere, then you could work on a lot of these other things that are going to have a negative impact on their world, whether it's substance use disorders, stabilizing them on their medication from a mental health standpoint, the co-occurring aspects of that, you can work on the trauma that they had when they were a child that led to these things, that led to the behavioral health issue," Sauschuck said.
Sauschuck said the old model, of having a counseling session, then sending people back to their encampments with another session on the schedule simply did not work.
Gov. Janet Mills pledged in her State of the Budget address to sign the Housing First legislation if it made it to her desk. The Maine House has voted to enact it. The bill is on the special appropriations table in the Senate awaiting funding.
"Everybody down here is so happy for me. They don't feel angry," Hardt said. "They're like, 'Kim you need this. You walked through [expletive] hell and came out the other side."