A sign in front of Portland City Hall during the weeks-long encampment in 2020, which called for more support to address the crisis of homelessness in the city. | Beacon
Originally published in the Maine Beacon on April 5, 2023
A bill to begin addressing homelessness in Maine by investing in a housing first model that provides 24-hour-a-day supportive services received widespread backing Tuesday, demonstrating the momentum behind taking urgent action to help those who repeatedly find themselves without shelter.
The measure, LD 2, sponsored by House Speaker Rachel Talbot Ross (D-Portland), is among a slate of housing bills introduced by lawmakers this session that advocates hope will help alleviate the state’s dire affordability and homelessness crisis.
A draft of Talbot Ross’ bill, which received a public hearing before the Housing Committee on Tuesday, shows that it would establish the Housing First Program within the Maine Department of Health and Human Services. That program would help facilitate around-the-clock supportive services to people in permanent supportive “housing first” sites that are set up for people who have experienced chronic homelessness.
As Beacon previously reported, housing first refers to an approach to addressing chronic homelessness in which people are provided housing without preconditions, such as staying sober or needing to obtain a job. The idea is gaining momentum around the country, including in Maine, where Gov. Janet Mills has backed the policy approach.
LD 2 would also allocate resources for the Maine State House Authority to assist with developing more housing first units with supportive services.
The bill would be funded by taking half of the money from the real estate transfer tax that would otherwise be deposited into the state’s general fund and putting that into a fund to support the Housing First Program. Talbot Ross estimates that could amount to $10 million to $13.5 million to provide the seed money for the program.
“Know that LD 2, an Act to End Chronic Homelessness by Creating the Housing First Fund, will do more than create housing. It will create lasting and transformational change,” Talbot Ross told the committee. “We can make history here in Maine and have the ability to do something no other state has done by ending chronic homelessness.
“This unique opportunity is now. The resources are available now. And the time to take action is now,” she added.
‘A place to call home’
In her testimony, the Speaker outlined the dangers of chronic homelessness — when a person lives in a place not meant for human habitation for at least a year. Talbot Ross noted that such individuals — of which she said there are just under 700 in Maine — have a significantly lower life expectancy than the general population and face long and repeated periods of homelessness.
Housing first is a proven model to address the issue, she said. Talbot Ross pointed to the success of three housing first sites run by the group Preble Street, which found that 89% of people at the sites maintained their housing over a five year period. Furthermore, a third of residents reconnected with family members. And there was also a dramatic drop in the use of expensive emergency services by people living at the Preble Street housing first sites, meaning such models help keep people from being homeless and save money, Talbot Ross said.
Many others are also in favor of LD 2, including Preble Street itself, which called housing first “a successful solution for people with complex needs experiencing chronic homelessness.”
“Site-based housing first is needed for our most vulnerable Mainers across the state in rural and urban communities,” the group added.
Another supporter of the measure is Laura Mitchell, executive director of the Maine Affordable Housing Coalition, who told lawmakers that the housing first model of dealing with chronic homelessness will help in multiple ways.
“A place to call home for this population and supportive services so they stay stable in that home saves our society untold dollars in emergency room visits, law enforcement engagement and, most importantly, untold trauma for these individuals who have been chronically for more than a year living outside or lack stable housing,” she said.
Jess Falero of the group Maine Climate Action Now also testified in favor of the bill. Falero recalled being unhoused at a young age, calling it a violent experience that traumatizes people who experience it. Falero said that’s why housing first — complete with the services that come with it — is so important, as it provides a safe place for people to get support.
“We urge you to support this bill’s solution to maximize housing stability and prevent returns to homelessness,” Falero said. “Everybody, in every community across Maine, deserves housing and the support necessary to maintain it.”
In additional testimony submitted in favor of the bill, Maura McDonald of Cape Elizabeth noted the impact the housing first model has had on her brother. She said her brother was homeless on the streets of Portland for years before she was able to help him obtain housing at Logan Place, one of Preble Street’s sites. Getting access to housing has stabilized his life, McDonald said, and allowed her and her family to have a relationship with him.
“It is my hope that the Housing Committee will look favorably on LD 2 and sufficient housing will be created so that others can benefit from an expanded housing infrastructure in the same way that Brian and I have,” she said.
Bill receives some suggested changes
While LD 2 received broad support from testifiers, some people also suggested alterations to the measure. For example, Katie Spencer White, chief executive officer of the Mid-Maine Homeless Shelter, said she’d like to see funding for scattered site housing first services also included in the bill. That model typically encompasses groups working with landlords to place people in supportive housing units rather than placing them in a site-based housing complex.
“I don’t want to see a one-size-fits-all approach,” White said. “We have a whole state and we need to serve the whole state.”
White, along with some other advocates, also called for adjusting the definition of chronic homelessness in the bill to correspond with how the federal government defines the term. The draft of LD 2 defines a chronically homeless person as someone who has been unhoused for at least 12 months, but excludes stays in an emergency shelter from that total.
By contrast, the federal government includes people living within a shelter in its definition of chronic homelessness. Adjusting the definition in LD 2 to how the federal government views the term would help more people in shelters access services under the bill, White told Housing Committee members.
Evan Popp studied journalism at Ithaca College and interned at the Progressive magazine, ThinkProgress and the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. He then worked for the Santa Fe New Mexican newspaper before joining Beacon. Evan can be reached at email@example.com.