Underscoring urgent need, bill to address chronic homelessness sails out of committee / by Evan Popp

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 May 5, 2023

Underscoring the severity of the crisis, a near unanimous committee vote advanced a measure this week to help address chronic homelessness through instituting a housing first model that provides 24-hour-a-day services to Mainers in need. 

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 crises

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, along with comprehensive support services. The idea is gaining momentum around the country, including in Maine, where Gov. Janet Mills has backed it. 

Talbot Ross’ bill would establish the Housing First Program within the Maine Department of Health and Human Services (DDHS). That program would help facilitate around-the-clock services at permanent supportive housing sites for chronically homeless people, defined as those who have lived in a place not meant for human habitation for at least a year. 

LD 2 would also allocate resources for the Maine State Housing Authority to assist with developing more housing first units complete with comprehensive 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 has estimated that around $13 million in seed money would be raised using that funding mechanism, with the measure also providing $1 million annually for scattered site housing services, which typically includes groups working with individual landlords to place people in supportive housing units rather than placing them in a site-based housing complex.

The measure was advanced earlier this week by the legislature’s Housing Committee on a 10-2 vote, with two Republicans — Rep. Dick Bradstreet of Vassalboro and Rep. Dick Campbell of Orrington — supporting a version that does not include the creation of two positions within DHHS to implement the initiative. The measure will now face votes on the floor of the House and Senate. 

Legislative supporters and advocates celebrated the committee’s decision to advance the bill. 

“Every human being deserves to be treated with dignity and respect, and that means safe shelter and having their basic needs met,” Talbot Ross said in a statement. “LD 2 will both provide vital compassionate care while providing a marked reduction in emergency crisis services, providing a tremendous benefit to the community at large.”

Mark Swann, executive director of the social service group Preble Street, which runs three highly-successful housing first complexes in Portland, also praised the committee’s decision and said he is hopeful that policymakers will give final approval to the bill in the coming months. 

“The Housing Committee promised to tackle the urgent situation facing people who are unhoused and this critical legislation is a very important step forward,” Swann said. “Site-based Housing First with 24/7 onsite social work staff is the most effective solution to chronic homelessness and through this legislation, Maine has a true opportunity to end chronic homelessness.”

The strong Housing Committee vote continues the momentum behind LD 2 and the housing first model, which received widespread support at a public hearing in April, with advocates arguing it would vastly improve the lives of the nearly 700 chronically unhoused people in Maine. 

“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,” Laura Mitchell, executive director of the Maine Affordable Housing Coalition, said at that hearing. 

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 evan@mainebeacon.com.