The Homeless, A Role for Local Government
(from Maine Townsman, November 1992)
by Jo Josephson, Assistant Editor

The homeless. There are many of them in Maine. How many depends on whom you talk to and how they define the term homeless.

There are emergency shelters for them, some 40 with about 600 beds, that are located mainly in Maine's larger cities.

In 1991 there were 12,600 sheltered admissions in Maine, according to a report of the Maine Interagency Task Force on Homelessness and Housing Opportunities. But Joel Rekas, executive director of the Maine Coalition for the Homeless, says that number is only the tip of the iceberg and doesn't count those who are "at risk" of becoming homeless. Those who are facing eviction from their primary residence, or camping out in the homes of friends and family, or residing in substandard housing, on the streets, or in cars, buses or tents.

Qualifiers acknowledged, this article attempts to provide an overview of the homeless situation in Maine and the role of municipal government in dealing with it.

While most shelters were established by private non-profit organizations and receive private and public funding (mostly state and federal), local government in Maine, through the General Assistance program, plays a not insignificant role in Maine's homeless situation, either by keeping those at risk out of the shelters by paying their rent, or, if they fall through the safety net of GA, paying for their stays at the emergency shelters.

MMA's Paralegal Geoff Herman estimates that 75 percent of all General Assistance monies go for shelter (housing, energy). Therefore one could say that in fiscal 92, of the $19 million spent in General Assistance over $14 million was spent by municipalities on housing needs of those in risk of becoming homeless.

But GA is not the only connection Maine's municipalities have with emergency shelters for the homeless. Some municipalities, in response to their requests, provide the private shelters with modest annual subsidies. Some provide publicly-owned buildings to the private shelter groups. Some give or withhold approval for the siting of the shelters in their communities. And last but not least, a very few, two to be specific— Portland and Bangor—operate their own shelters.

The information in this article is both anecdotal and factual. The subject of the homeless and homeless shelters be it in Maine or elsewhere is a complex subject, peppered with lots of opinions, conflicting and consistent, myths, misconceptions, facts and qualified figures. It's true what they say: What you believe depends on where you sit.

Who are Maine's Homeless?

One cannot write an article about homeless shelters and their relationships with Maine's municipalities without first looking at those they shelter and the issues surrounding their homelessness.

Some say that because of Maine's unique General Assistance program, there is no reason for anyone to be homeless in Maine; that GA plays a key role in preventing homelessness. That every time GA is used to pay the rent, homelessness has been prevented. Therefore, they say, those that are homeless do so by choice.

Homeless advocates like Rekas, point out that while General Assistance is indeed a major safety net preventing homelessness in Maine, there are an increasing number of Maine individuals who are falling through those nets.

"And those who do fall through," says Rekas "land in the shelters."

"Those who do fall through" are characterized by a high degree of mental illness, substance abuse, or both," according to a report by the Maine Task Force to Study the Homeless published in 1986.

The mentally ill. Rekas cites national statistics which indicate that the number of mentally ill who use homeless shelters has grown in the past few years from one-third to one-half the shelter population.

Closer to home, in Portland, Maine, Welfare Director Bob Duranleau says he is currently seeing an increase in single mentally ill clients from 35 percent to 70 percent of those staying in Portland's shelter for single homeless adults.

"Their needs are great," says Duranleau, noting the increase in violence among those seeking shelter in Portland's Oxford Street Shelter.

Mary Ann Chalila, Bangor's welfare director, echoes Duranleau's observations. She notes that six years ago the private non-profit Greater Bangor Area Shelter was set up primarily for families. "Now 95 percent of those it houses are the chronically mentally ill," says Chalila.

To understand how the mentally ill are falling through the safety nets and landing in the shelters, one need only turn to the 1991 report, "By Sundown: A Report on Homeless in Maine", prepared by The Interagency Task Force on Homelessness and Housing Opportunities.

It included several case studies describing the homeless, including one "Keen, a 22 year old-male diagnosed as brain damaged from chronic substance abuse and as a paranoid schizophrenic. On probation for unlawful sexual conduct, he receives a monthly Social Security check because of his disability.

"When he is not in jail or in residential treatment, social workers try to find housing for him. He has repeated the cycle of getting into some type of housing, with his parents, sister, his own apartment, or at the YMCA. He does well for a few days, then gets into drinking or drugs, spends all his money, gets violent, and is moved into an inpatient unit or jail. When released he has no money for food or housing and even if he did, no one would want him because of his violent behavior."

Except, perhaps a shelter.

In Rekas' view the rise in the seriously mentally ill population in shelters is directly related to public policy. As more and more of the mentally ill are deinstitutionalized in Maine and elsewhere, more and more are winding up in the shelters. As they return to their communities they are unable to live independently and the communities they return to do not have the resources for supervised living arrangements.

(The Maine State Housing Authority, in its Comprehensive Housing Affordability Study for fiscal year 1992, identified 800 to 1,000 persons with mental illness in need of supervised living arrangements in Maine.)

We did this 25 years ago with the mentally ill and failed to provide the communities with the necessary resources; we are making the same mistake in the 90's," says Rekas.

As to what is to be done, Bangor's Chalila who is a strong believer that homelessness is a local issue, says municipalities need to lobby Augusta to see to it that services for the chronically mentally ill be distributed around the state, not just in the major metropolitan areas. "There is no reason people should be forced to leave their communities for help," she says.

Children and youth. These are another large group to be found in the shelters. Not the runaways, but rather the throwaways" where neither the parent nor the guardian want the child, says Rekas.

The Interagency Task Force provides us again with another example of someone falling through the net. It describes the case of "Tommy", age 17, who has behavioral problems stemming from a stroke at age 15.

"He was not found to be at risk of committing suicide or becoming violent and was therefore able to live at home. Tommy was signed into an emergency shelter and then abandoned by his family, after his father gave his family a choice, either he leaves or Tommy leaves."

Figures from the Maine State Housing Authority indicate that one in five, or 21 percent, of those staying in emergency shelters for the 12 month period ending December 31, 1990 was under the age of 18. There are currently six shelters in Maine designated expressly for children and youth, according to Rekas.

Battered wives with children. Victims of domestic violence, are another category of homeless shelter clients. As Maine State Housing Authority's Margaret Marshall notes, "there is a lot of domestic violence in Maine and it is not so shameful for a woman to leave as it was in the past." She also notes that children are speaking out about it and women leave in order to keep their children, but they are not prepared financially or emotionally.

For these reasons and the fact that landlords are reluctant to rent to them because they fear the partners of battered women will seek them out and cause damage, there are currently seven shelters and two safe homes for victims of domestic violence in Maine.

Other figures compiled by MSHA also indicate that the median age of persons who stayed in emergency shelters for the period December 1989-90 was 29 years of age. One in five persons was under the age of 18; less than 5 percent were over the age of 61.

How many homeless are there

Numbers. As noted above, when you start talking numbers of homeless it gets tricky and depends on whom you talk to and how they define the homeless.

For example, advocate Rekas says the U.S. Census reported 400,000 homeless in this country in 1990. Advocates for the homeless disagreed, saying the number did not include those at imminent risk of becoming homeless or those who were episodically homeless. "We say the number is double that which is reported," says Rekas.

That said, Rekas quotes the Maine State Housing Authority figures: In 1990 Maine's emergency shelters accommodated more than 10,500 admissions. In 1991, there were 12,600 sheltered admissions for 6,700 different individuals. For the first six months in 1992, there were 6,000 sheltered admission.

Rekas says it is important to understand that Those numbers are conservative" in that they only included those that end up in shelters.

The Maine State Housing Authority acknowledges this. In its 1992 study it "defines" those at risk as "people who pay a disproportionate share of their income for housing, live in substandard housing, temporarily reside in penal institutions, are institutionalized in mental health facilities, or face unexpected hardship caused by family violence.

As to whether the homeless numbers are increasing in Maine, Bangor's Chalila says she is not seeing an increase in homeless families because of Maine's strong GA program but, like Portland's Duranleau, she is seeing an increase in the number of chronically mentally ill; she is also seeing an increase in the number of adolescents and their ages are getting younger and younger.

Despite the increase in the chronically mentally ill in his shelters, Portland's Duranleau says bed usage at his shelters has dropped 20 percent. In part, he thinks it is the fact that transients are not moving into Portland from other states because of the reports of the poor economic conditions here in the northeast.

Shelter vacancies are up also because of the soft rental market in the Portland area says Duranleau. When the market was tight, the shelter was the best deal; now there are more options for those who can take advantage of them, explains Duranleau.

He says that the drop in shelter population is fortuitous, because of the increase in those using the shelters with serious mental health problems, as such clients require more support services.

As to how long clients stay at shelters, according to the Maine State Housing Authority, available admission and departure information for the period December 1989 through 1990 indicated that the average length of stay was eleven nights. The MSHA notes, however, that the figure is skewed from the median three-night stay as a result of the 448 persons who had been in an emergency shelter for more than six months.

How much money is being spent?

The dollars flowing into emergency shelters for the homeless in Maine come from a wide variety of public and private sources.

Federal Dollars

On the federal level, monies are available under the McKinneyHomeless Assistance Act of 1987.

Figures compiled by the Interagency Councid on the Homeless, and provided to the TOWNSMAN by Margaret Marshall of the Maine State Housing Authority, indicate that between fiscal 87 and fiscal 91, under the McKinney Act, the State of Maine received $17.2 million and ranked 34th in the nation ahead of New Hampshire, which ranked 37th and received $16.4 million, and Vermont, which ranked 45th and received $7.8 million.

The total spent nationwide during that period was $2.3 billion, with California receiving a top total of $288 million.

The dollars coming into Maine have fluctuated over the years: FY '87—$4 million; FY '88—$3.2 million; FY '89—$1.3 million; FY '90—$3.2 million; and FY '91—$5.5 million. They come from a variety of sources including HUD, Health and Human Services, Education and FEMA.

Two of the programs which pass through the Maine State Housing Authority are the Emergency Community Services Grant Program, which is funded by the Health and Human Services Department, and the Emergency Shelter Homeless Grant Program, which is funded by HUD.

The Emergency Community Services Grant Program. These federal monies are distributed to Maine's 11 community action agencies (CAPs), which in turn use them to pay for staff that coordinate resources for the homeless. On the federal level funding for this program has dropped from $25 million in fiscal '91 to $19.8 million in fiscal'92. In Federal fiscal year '91 Maine received $222,238; last year, the state received about $132,000.

The Emergency Shelter Homeless Grant Program. This program is directed to local governments or nonprofit shelter providers statewide. Monies can be used to rehabilitate buildings, cover operating costs, or provide supportive services.

Like the ECSG program, this program has been subject to major cuts. In fiscal '92, $73 million was available nationwide, in fiscal '93 only $50 malign was made available.

At the local level in fiscal '92 Maine received $304,000 from this program. Thirty-seven of the state's 42 emergency homeless shelters applied; 28 received funding. Of those receiving grants, 10 were domestic violence shelters; three were shelters for youth; one was a day resource center, the rest were for general shelters housing single adults and families.

Commenting on the apparent drop in federal monies for the homeless, Marshall says the federal government is trying to move away from the "warehousing of the homeless" that is done in many large cities, where one-night stands are all that is offered, unlike in Maine where meals and services are provided in addition to a bed.

Marshall says that a brand new program, "Shelter Plus Care", has been developed at the federal level to provide grants directly to shelters on a competitive basis, thus bypassing state agencies. She also notes a bill in Congress, sponsored by Senators George Mitchell and William Cohen, that would provide block grants to the state under the National Affordable Housing Act.

The problem, says Marshall, is trying to compete with states like California and New York for federal funding. "They have greater numbers, it is true, but not greater needs," says Marshall, noting that not one New England state received monies recently from a federal program providing permanent housing for the homeless handicapped.

State Dollars

The Maine State Housing Authority administers two grant programs for the homeless in Maine, one provides direct assistance to the homeless or those who are at risk of becoming homeless; the other provides direct assistance to the shelters. Together they provide about three-quarters of a million dollars. Both programs were trimmed slightly in last year's budget crunch.

The Temporary Housing Assistance Program (THAP). First funded by the legislature in 1989, it provides about $250,000 a year for temporary assistance for people who need shelter or are at risk of becoming homeless. Money is distributed through the state's CAP agencies to pay for such things as security deposits, back rent, forward rent, or any other expense to prevent eviction or to establish a person in a rental. According to MSHA's Marshall, 750 clients have been served to date by this program, They are eligible for up to a maximum of $400 per client. Marshall says the CAP agencies run through their monies within two months.

The Shelter Operating Subsidy Program. Also begun in 1989, this program has given about $500,000 a year to shelter providers statewide based on their number of beds and occupancy rates. Last year 37 shelters received operating monies from the program. Based on the formula, a shelter can get as much as $25,000, says Marshall.

What's happening at the municipal level?

As noted above, over $14 million in General Assistance monies (state and local) is spent annually on the direct housing needs of low income Mainers, either to keep people from becoming homeless or to pay for their stays in emergency shelters for the homeless. MMA's General Assistance Advisor, Geoff Herman, arrived at that figure, saying that about 75 percent of GA monies are spent on shelter (housing and energy) needs.

While it is not known how much GA money is spent on housing clients in emergency shelters, when there is a shelter in a town that attracts "people from away", the question of which municipality should cover their stay with GA monies is one that arises from time to time.

As Rekas says, the most common form of resistance to shelters, he has heard, is, "Why does our town have to do so much; why aren't other towns doing their share?"

Given the fact that most shelters are located in urban areas of the state; given the fact that not all persons staying in those shelters come from that area, the question arises as to who should be made to cover the cost of the stay at the shelter.

In other words, should a shelter in one municipality bill the municipality from which their client last resided or should it bill the so-called host community in which the shelter resides?

It’s a matter of Maine law, that an individual cannot be denied General Assistance based on his or her residency. For an excellent discussion of the law, see pages 35-37 in the October 1992 edition of MMA's General Assistance Manual.

Beyond that, it is a matter of practicality and politics as to whom a shelter attempts to collect monies from.

Practical in that the residential history of homeless people tends to be marked by transiency, and it is difficult to track them; in other words, their last residency could be a homeless shelter in another town or state for that matter.

MMA's Herman notes that as a matter of law the municipality responsible for issuing GA on behalf of an eligible application in a homeless shelter is the host municipality.

Why? Because of the definition of residency as spelled out in Maine's GA law, says Herman.

"With regard to institutional residency, the law places a financial responsibility outside of the shelter's host municipality only when the applicant was clearly a resident of another municipality immediately before entering the shelter. "Most people applying for GA for homeless shelters are not residents, as that term is defined in the law, of any municipality before entering the shelter. For the purpose of fixing municipal responsibility, the applicants are transient,"

Where it is practical to track residency, some shelters do, notes Herman, pointing to the cases involving victims of domestic violence. "These people more clearly had a home before they wound up in a shelter," says Herman.

One shelter that does attempt to track the residency of all its clients is the private, nonprofit York County Shelter. It does so in order not to overburden its host community, the Town of Alfred, and wear out its welcome. The emergency shelter has 30 beds for male and female residents and an array of services.

According to Dorothy Hill, selectman and the welfare director in Alfred, the town has never appropriated any funds for the York County Emergency Shelter, nor has it paid out any money in General Assistance. As she carefully explains it, the town has a very good working relationship with the shelter and its directors.

"They are the first to be aware of the fact they pay us no property taxes and therefore try not to burden the town with their presence," says Hill. She notes that the shelter "bills back to the towns their clients came from", rather than putting the burden on Alfred, its host town.

The TOWNSMAN was unsuccessful in trying to reach Don Gean, the executive director of York County Emergency Shelter Inc. to find out his success rate.

Municipalities Deal With Homelessness

Alfred and York County Shelter Inc. are just one example of the shelter-municipal relationship currently in operation in Maine. What other kinds of relationships exist in Maine?

Biddeford. While Biddeford is one of the towns that refers its homeless clients to the York County Emergency Shelter, Welfare Director Vickey Edgerly says the amount of GA monies spent to house their clients is very small. While she can refer them to the shelter, Edgerly says she cannot require them to go. Edgerly says she pays for only eight people a year at the shelter, although she refers that many a week.

For those that do go, under a verbal agreement with the shelter, Biddeford pays the shelter $55 a week. Edgerly says the price per client is reduced because the town also provides the shelter with $3,500 a year in core funding.

Edgerly says that rather than go to the shelter where a wide range of social services are available, most of her homeless clients prefer a room or apartment in part because the shelters ban the use of drugs and alcohol.

"Right now, they can find housing for between $45-$50 a week, but that does not include food which when figured in raises the cost well beyond that of the shelter," says Edgerly. Of her $600,000 GA budget, Edgerly says she spends about $400,000 on housing for her clients. A Minuscule" amount is spent on "sheltering" her clients in the shelter.

Edgerly says in the best of all possible worlds, there should be enough monies to fund the shelters so they do not need GA. In that world, clients who were referred to those shelters providing case management services would not be eligible for continuing public assistance unless an effort was made to take advantage of the available rehabilitative programs.

Bangor. Bangor is one of the two municipalities in Maine (the other is Portland) to run its own shelters. As Welfare Director Maryann Chalila points out, Bangor has been in the shelter business for over 25 years, starting with a shelter for alcohol abusers. Bangor currently runs two shelters with a total of 20 beds: one for men and one for women and children. The city spends about $27,000 in GA money for the operation of the two, reports Chalila.

"Bangor got into the shelter business because it did not want to pay $75 a night for putting people up in motels," explains Chalda.

There are currently four other emergency shelters in Bangor; one for the mentally ill, one for victims of family violence, one for alcoholics, and one for adolescents.

Chalila says in the best of all possible worlds, Bangor would not provide those shelters that are tax exempt with GA monies. "They already get a subsidy from us, by the fact that they are exempt from property taxes," says Chalila, adding "they should be operating on charity, not GA."

But it is not the best of Al possible worlds, admits Chalila, and so "special circumstances" have found Bangor providing GA to cover the costs of clients at tax exempt shelters like Shaw House, a shelter for adolescents.

As funding for the shelter from the Department of Human Services dried up last spring, Bangor entered into an informal agreement with the shelter to pay actual costs for the adolescents staying there. "We didn't want the kids out on the street; we didn't want them in apartments; we wanted them in a supervised situation," explains Chalila.

Presque Isle. According to Presque Isle's Welfare Director Mona Blanchard, the city currently gives a lump sum of $2,600 to the only emergency homeless shelter in Aroostook County. Temporary Shelter for the Homeless, which is located in Presque Isle provides shelter for single men and women and youth over 15 without parents and families. It also pays a per night fee of $13.50 a person for residents of Presque Isle who stay at the shelter.

Unlike most municipalities, Presque Isle has a fommal contract with the shelter. Among other things, the contract spells out the fee per night and notes that the city's "maximum commitment for any one client is for seven nights".

The current contract also notes that "in dealing with clients who are determined nonresidents of the City of Presque Isle, who are from Aroostook County, the shelter wal bill the respective municipalities for the services rendered such clients." The other towns in the area pay $20 a night for their residents to stay at the shelter, notes Blanchard.

Blanchard reports that she spends between $8,000 and $10,000 a year of GA money for the shelter clients.

Portland. Portland operates three emergency shelters. There is the Oxford Sheet Shelter for homeless adults, with 50 beds. In fiscal year '92 it had 879 unduplicated visits; 86 percent of those staying there were male; 96 percent were unemployed. It also runs two family shelters also with a total of 50 beds; they are known as the City of Portland Family Shelters.

In addition to supporting its own shelters with GA monies, Portland also makes GA payments to a large number of private shelters and transitional housing programs in the city.

According to Portland's Welfare Director Bob Duranleau, in 1990-91 the city paid out more than $750,000 to 12 shelters and transitional housing programs in the city, including the YMCA which it pays $140,000 to shelter adult males and $85,000 to the YWCA to shelter homeless adult women.

The city has a unique relationship with one of those shelters, the Arnie Hansen Shelter for homeless adults with substance abuse problems. Unique, in that it enables the shelter to "presume eligibility" for GA from the city, thus by-passing the standard application and decision process.

"if the person is homeless, we presume they are eligible for GA," says Duranleau referring to Title 22, Section 4304.3 in the GA law that allows a municipality to make arrangements with an emergency shelter for the homeless, enabling it to presume its clients are eligible for municipal assistance.

As MMA's Herman notes in his GA manual (page 47), "the primary purpose of this type of presumption would be so that those cities dealing with large transient populations could defer, for a short period of time, the necessary paperwork to establish GA eligibility. In 1990-91, Portland reimbursed the 33 bed Arnie Hansen Shelter $271,000.

Duranleau says that in making reimbursements to the shelters the City pays $78 a week per client. In 1991, Portland spent $4.1 million in GA; it received 95 percent reimbursement from the state.

Rumford. There are few shelters for the homeless in Oxford County, save for the four bed, community action agency run shelter in Rumford that does not take clients with social or mental problems or victims of domestic violence because it is unsupervised and occupies the same building as the agency's Head Start program.

That meant that most, if not all, of Rumford Welfare Director Peggy Turner's clients in need of emergency shelter were ineligible. "Shelters are needed because it takes time to get people into apartments," says Turner.

Frustrated not only by the lack of a shelter in her rural western Maine town, Turner was frustrated by the amount of time it was taking her to find and make referrals to existing services.

To remedy the latter, three years ago she founded the "Families in Crisis Task Force", a volunteer organization, To work with the issues of homeless, people with mental illness, substance abuse, domestic violence and general assistance referrals." Rumford has contributed towards the core funding of the Task Force's small budget, which this year totalled $8,800.

To remedy the former, Turner took it into her own hands to create not a shelter, but what she calls a privately-owned 26 unit Boarding house" that will take her clients, mostly single people, for $50 a week per per0 son or $20 for a single night.