May 25, 2013

At Bread of Life homeless shelter, demand far outweighs supply

As number of homeless increases in Maine, local shelters find beds consistently full

By Paul Koenig
Staff Writer

AUGUSTA -- Kristopher Hartford and Tatiana Nirza said they were lucky to get beds in the Bread of Life homeless shelter just two days after they called.

click image to enlarge

Tatiana Nirza, left, 17, Kristopher Hartford, 19, and their son, Kayden Kristopher Hartford, 7 months, in their room Friday on the third floor of Bread of Life Shelter in Augusta.

Staff photo by Joe Phelan

They've been living at the shelter for about three weeks with their 7-month-old son, Kayden, because the income from Hartford's part-time job at a fast food restaurant isn't enough to support them.

"It's pretty much hit or miss when you call," said Nirza, 17.

It may take others weeks to get a bed.

Dean Lachance, executive director of Bread of Life Ministries, said openings at the 30-bed emergency housing shelter are usually filled within 24 hours.

"They literally call every day or show up in the driveway, either in a car or walking," he said. "Winter, summer, you name it."

The shelter has been turning away around 100 people each month this year, according to Lachance.

Last December, the shelter turned away 224 people looking for housing.

"There are 43 shelters in Maine, and they're always full," Lachance said, "And there's always a huge need. But since 2008, we've seen even more requests try to get in a bed."

Every year the Maine State Housing Authority releases a federally required survey of the number of people experiencing homelessness on one particular night near the end of January.

This year's annual point-in-time survey, released earlier this month, showed that 1,175 people were homeless in Maine on January 30.

The snapshot of one night doesn't represent the number of homeless people in a year, but that snapshot has grown every year since 2008, when 776 were recorded.

The number of unique clients in homeless shelters in the state and Kennebec County has stayed more consistent over the last five years, fluctuating between 600 and 700 a year in Kennebec County. Nationally, homelessness in the U.S. declined 4.6 percent from 2008 to 2012, according to the National Alliance to End Homelessness.

The time people spend in the homeless shelters in Maine, however, has increased.

The average number of bed nights in shelters in Maine increased from 31.6 to 42.1 between 2008 and 2012, according to data from the Maine State Housing Authority.

Kennebec County saw a slightly smaller increase, 27.8 to 36.1.

Lachance said many people stay at the Bread of Life Ministries shelter for three to six months.

Mid-Maine Homeless Shelter in Waterville has seen the need for emergency housing growing, said Betty Palmer, director of the 48-bed shelter.

Last week, the shelter assisted three new families in one night that had been living in cars or tents with children under the age of 1.

They squeezed one family in the shelter and helped two others with alternative housing arrangements for a few days until they could get them in, she said.

In addition to the 30-bed shelter in Augusta, Bread of Life runs a 12-bed shelter for veterans, which is paid for through a contract with the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs and is in its second year.

Carol Kulesza, Healthcare for Homeless Veterans program coordinator at VA Medical Campus Center, said the shelter for veterans has been successful.

"One of the ways we're measuring that is our beds are constantly being utilized," she said. "It's very rare we have an opening."

The Bread of Life Ministries also has a food kitchen, a life skills resource center, and transitional and permanent housing in Augusta.

Lachance said the goal of all the services is to break the cycle of poverty and move people on to living on their own.

The resource center offers classes and workshops on topics like budgeting, parenting, nutrition, stress management and career services.

(Continued on page 2)

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