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Portland Considers Controversial Plan to End Homelessness
11/20/2012   Reported By: Tom Porter

On any given night an estimated 660,000 Americans sleep on the street, or in homeless shelters. Here in Portland, that number is about 440, says Mark Swann. Swann is executive director of Preble Street, a resource center for the homeless in Maine's largest city. He's also one of the members of a task force on homelessness that presented its findings to Portland City Council Monday night.

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Among the 25-page report's recommendations are the creation of more permanent housing units for homeless people, as well the re-organization and "re-tooling" of the emergency shelter system, which Mark Swann says is under enormous pressure.

I think this task force is looking towards the longer term solutions, like Housing First, but also saying, 'What do we need to do right now?' Because this community, like so many cities around the country, is in a crisis around homelessness," he says.

Jim Devine"My name's Jim Devine. I live on Congress Street near Longfellow Square, actually, in an apartment. I've experienced homelessness several times in the past."

Devine (left) says he's been sober for a number of years now, but his struggle with alcoholism in the past caused him to lose his job as an electrician and end up on the streets. Before moving into his apartment five months ago, Devine says he spent several years drifting in and out of shelters and group homes, or on the street.

Now a homeless advocate, he welcomes the report's findings, particularly its emphasis on what's caused the Housing First model. Devine says it's much easier for homeless people to get the help they need once they are housed.

"They're talking about the Housing First model - it's very good for a lot of people that struggle with a variety of issues, and they get help with these issues once they get housed," Devine says. "You have to get housed first. You can't do your issues first while you're sleeping on the street."

The report does not contain an estimate of the cost to implement the suggestions. But it does point out that the current system costs more than $6.7 million a year, and goes on to say that the new model would save an estimated $5.1 million over five years.

The city's emergency services would also see savings of about $2.25 million per year, says Preble Street's Mark Swann.

"People avail themselves of far fewer services if they're stable and have a place to live, a place to heal," he says. "Then they do better, the community is better off, family members are breathing a sigh of relief and it does save money as well."

The report got a mixed reaction from the local business community. While some were members of the task force, others urged caution. The Portland Community Chamber issued an 11-page response to the findings.

Among the concerns expressed: that if more shelter space and housing were provided in Portland, the city might become even more of a magnet for homeless people than it already is.

"Of those people who stay in the shelters in Portland, last year two-thirds of them were from outside Portland," says Chamber Spokesman Chris O'Neil. "Portland certainly isn't going to put barbed wire around the city and say, 'No don't come here.' But the chamber has urged caution that the council should not do the opposite of that, which is to say, 'Build more capacity.'"

Not surprisingly, homeless advocates reject this viewpoint. Mark Swann from the Preble Street Resource Center says those who believe Portland might be seen as an attractive destination by the homeless are misquided.

"I think it's a horrible mischaracterization of what life is for people living in shelters," he says. "They're sleeping on mats on the floor, six inches apart from one another - from a stranger they don't even know - six inches on each side and head-to-toe, clutching their belongings."

Photo by Tom Porter.


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