Photo: Francisco Javier Medina Gomez/ Creative Commons
Originally publishd in the Maine Beacon on February 1, 2023
Temperatures are set to drop precipitously in Maine later this week, creating dangerous conditions for unhoused people, with community aid groups scrambling to find shelter and services for those in need.
An Arctic front will bring harsh cold to the state Friday and Saturday, and temperatures are projected to reach as low as 30 and 40 degrees below zero with the wind chill factored in.
Maine’s annual point-in-time count of unhoused people from 2022 found that 4,441 people were homeless in January of that year, a sharp increase from the year before—meaning that thousands will likely be in danger from the upcoming weather system.
That comes as Maine’s housing crisis — a significant contributing factor to homelessness — continues to escalate, with prices rising and thousands of people on voucher waiting lists. Further, evictions in the state rose 27% in 2022 over the previous year, with the end of emergency rental assistance contributing to that growth. At the same time, advocates have argued that cities such as Bangor, Portland and other local communities — along with state government —haven’t done enough to set up services to help unhoused people and have instead sometimes resorted to clearing out homeless encampments, leaving gaps that mutual aid organizations have attempted to fill.
In Bangor, for example, the group Needlepoint Sanctuary of Maine — in conjunction with other community aid organizations — is raising funds this week to provide warmth and shelter during the coming cold snap. The organization, which has long done mutual aid work at homeless encampments in the Bangor area, is looking to raise $5,000.
“Across Maine temperatures will plummet this weekend,” the group’s fundraiser reads. “For many Mainers this will mean a few days of bundling up on the way to work and hunkering down at home, but for community members experiencing homelessness or insecure housing, this cold snap could result in death if they are unable to find shelter.”
Needlepoint said the money raised will go toward buying hotel rooms for unhoused people in Bangor as well as Sanford, with any additional funds going to buying food and warm gear for unhoused people and creating care packages for partner organizations to distribute. Questions can be directed to firstname.lastname@example.org or by calling 207-370-4782.
The group is also calling on local municipalities to address the coming cold weather by working with the community to create additional warming centers to provide shelter overnight from Thursday evening until Sunday morning.
The Bangor Daily News reported Tuesday that there are five warning centers currently operating in the city. Those include the Bangor Area Homeless Shelter at 263 Main Street, the Union Street Brick Church at 126 Union Street, the Mansion Church at 96 Center Street, the River Church at 146 Center Street and the Bangor Public Library at 145 Harlow Street.
In addition, the Unitarian Universalist Society of Bangor is allowing Needlepoint Sanctuary to run an overnight warming shelter at its church at 120 Park Street. That shelter will be in operation from 6 p.m. to noon Thursday into Friday, 6 p.m. to noon Friday into Saturday, and 6 p.m. to 10 a.m. Saturday into Sunday. The group is looking for volunteers to sign up for four hour shifts during those times.
A list of statewide emergency shelters can be found here. In addition, other communities are already setting up plans to create pop-up warming shelters during the cold snap.
Another place that will be providing help this weekend is Mid-Maine Homeless Shelter and Services in Waterville. Katie Spencer White, CEO of that group, said in addition to its 48-bed shelter, the organization will be operating a warming shelter staying open 24 hours a day this weekend to help people survive the cold. The warming center and the group’s shelter are located at 19 Colby Street in Waterville.
Spencer White added that the organization’s facilities are low-barrier, meaning they don’t have sobriety tests and also accept people with pets. She said that is a rarity among shelters in Maine, with only a handful of low-barrier options receiving funding.
Spencer White said she’s often asked at times like these what people can do to help. While supplies such as clothing and food can be useful, she said financial donations are the most beneficial. While the group’s homeless shelter receives funding, warming centers don’t generally receive external support, Spencer White explained, making the continued operation of such centers reliant on donations and community aid.
Moving forward, Spencer White said she would like to see more state and federal help for shelters and warming centers as policymakers also work to create affordable housing to address homelessness in the long-run.
“We solve homelessness through housing,” she said. “But it is also the case that we need good shelter options today, and we would like to see more investment.”
Groups in the Portland area are also mobilizing in preparation for the cold temperatures. One such organization is the grassroots community organization Maine Needs, which this week is asking for donations of warm blankets; zero degree sleeping bags; waterproof mittens and gloves; waterproof boots; hand and toe warmers; and gift cards to stores such as True Value, Hannaford and Walmart to help people fill up propane tanks. The group can receive donations Monday-Friday from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. (with hours going until 7 p.m. on Tuesday) and Saturday from 10 a.m. to noon at 332 Forest Avenue in Portland.
There will also be several warming shelters available in Portland during the cold weather, including the First Parish Church at 425 Congress Street on Friday and Saturday from 8 a.m. until 4 p.m. and the Downtown library at 5 Monument Square on Friday until 5 p.m. and Saturday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
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.