December 13, 2013

Central Maine homeless shelters struggle to meet demand as winter weather hits

The Mid-Maine Homeless Shelter has been flooded with calls as forecasters predict subzero temperatures and snow on Sunday.

By Matt Hongoltz-Hetling
Staff Writer

(Continued from page 1)

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filled: Betty Palmer, executive director of the Mid-Maine Homeless Shelter in Waterville, stands in the day room that doubles as an over-flow sleeping area when the shelter is at or above capacity. Some people were already using the space Friday and Palmer expected the shelter to be over-flowing with the onset of a bitter cold snap.

Staff photo by Michael G. Seamans

click image to enlarge

COLD SNAP: Mark “Dog” Wallace covers up as much skin as he can for a walk on Quarry Road in Waterville on Friday. Temperatures hovering at or below 0 degrees and a winter storm are expected to grip central Maine over the weekend.

Staff photo by Michael G. Seamans

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A statement released by his office said the state’s supplies of propane are 25 percent lower than normal and that unusually cold weather is expected for the next 30 days.

Budget crunches freezing homeless

Faced with shrinking state and federal support, some homeless support services have undergone additional strains, or disappeared altogether.

“Our budget is hurting, but we can’t put people out in the cold,” Palmer said.

About 40 homeless shelters around the state were affected by a 30 percent reduction, some because of federal sequestration cuts, in the federal Emergency Solutions Grants program, which is administered by the Maine State Housing Authority on behalf of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. In all, about $330,000 was lost to the state.

Palmer said the Mid-Maine Homeless Shelter took a $30,000 hit from the reduction.

Reduced funding had an even larger impact in Skowhegan, where the Halcyon House, a 10-bed shelter which provided emergency housing for 68 homeless youths last year, closed its doors in September. Thomas McAdam, the chief executive officer of Kennebec Behavioral Health, which ran the shelter, said the funding cuts created a climate in which the Halcyon House couldn’t continue without threatening the organization’s other services.

In Augusta, the 30-bed homeless shelter operated by Bread of Life Ministries is always full, according to Dean Lachance, the executive director. “We’re always at 100 percent,” he said. “If a room or bed becomes available, it’s filled within 24 hours.”

He said the shelter, which sometimes turns away as many as 140 people in a month, has also felt the impact of the cuts, which he said are part of a larger pattern of decreased funding over the past eight years.

Lachance hasn’t noticed an increase in calls yet this season, but said he has learned to expect a bump in January.

“During the coldest part of winter, people are leaving their friends and family after the holidays and Christmas present bills are starting to come due, which adds a whole other set of stress,” he said.

He said the loss of seasonal Christmas jobs also takes a toll during that time period.

Warming center closed

The Waterville Area Warming Center, which offered area residents an opportunity to get out of the cold during daytime hours for the last two winters, will not be open this year.

The board of directors at The United Way, which ran the warming center, decided over the summer not to reopen the center, not because of funding issues, but because it didn’t anticipate a demand for the warming center this year.

Last year, the warming center was used almost exclusively by residents of the Mid-Maine Homeless Shelter, which was closed during daytime hours at the time.

This year, the homeless shelter is open to its residents 24 hours a day, which seems to have eliminated the need for the warming center, according to United Way board member Michael Barrett, chairman of the committee that oversaw the center.

“If you’re not really meeting the target audience, you should be doing something else,” Barrett said. He said if a demand for the service became apparent, the board would revisit the idea for next year.

Palmer said that, while the homeless shelter is now open during the day, it doesn’t provide warming services to the community at large.

“We have children here,” she said. “We can’t have people who may not be safe coming in around the shelter, and we can’t check people who may only be here for an hour.”

Palmer said homeless shelters are the last line of defense for people who have nowhere else to go. The solution to surges in demand isn’t to build more homeless shelter capacity, she said. It’s to have more affordable housing options for those people so that they don’t need a homeless shelter in the first place.

“We need to get our community to invest in homeless prevention,” Palmer said. “Getting more shelter beds is not going to end homelessness.”

Matt Hongoltz-Hetling — 861-9287 Twitter: @hh_matt


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Additional Photos

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overflow: Brian Gillespie, 20, reads from his floor mat bed in the over-flow area at the Mid-Maine Homeless Shelter on Friday. Gillespie has been at the shelter for about 30 days and will be sharing the over-flow space with an increased population due in part to the bitter cold temperatures.

Staff photo by Michael G. Seamans


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