Homeless people ponder next destination as Portland housing crisis intensifies

Asylum seekers needing help have added to a basic problem: Too few beds available for too many hopeful people.
A woman gathers her belongings using shopping carts and a trash can.
A woman collects her belongings May 16 as she and others were cleared out from the Bayside encampment. Photo by Emily Bader.

As the clock ticked closer to an eviction deadline Tuesday, the Bayside Trail in Portland was a flurry of activity. Some 150 people lived in tents for the past several months along this stretch of public land in the Bayside neighborhood. Dozens of tents remained standing as the unhoused residents rushed to pack up their entire lives.

The city of Portland notified the people in the encampment five days earlier that they had to be out by 9 a.m. Tuesday. Officials said the encampment had become an acute health and public safety issue, and had to come down.

Police officers watched as people scurried to break down tents, fill suitcases and backpacks, and shove whatever they could into shopping carts. Volunteers helped haul things into waiting vans from organizations such as Milestone Recovery to transport people wherever they wanted to go. Nearby, city public works staff, donned in neon yellow safety vests, hovered next to idling heavy machinery.

This was the latest blow to the city’s unhoused population, and the latest chapter in what has become a mounting set of crises involving two distinct populations.

During the annual census taken in January, 4,258 homeless people were counted in Maine, about a quarter of them chronically homeless, meaning they were homeless for at least a year or are in and out of homelessness. That’s up from 3,455 last year and 1,297 in 2020, just prior to the COVID-19 pandemic.

At the same time, Portland has received at least 1,000 new asylum seekers since the first of the year, most from central and southern Africa, further straining Maine’s social services. The asylum seekers are generally staying in other housing, and not in the tents on the Bayside Trail.

The decision to tear down the encampment, an event that drew a heavy media presence, also showed that local officials are struggling with where to put thousands of unhoused people. Simply put, the people ousted from the encampment had little guidance on where to go next.

“There’s very little guidance on what they can do, which is not very helpful,” said Matt Brown, who runs Hope Squad Maine, a group that provides homeless people with food, drinks, clothes or whatever else they might need.

A yellow piece of paper that was attached to a tent May 15, 2023 at 10:15 a.m. The notice says: "Notice: Unauthorized campsite. It is the policy of the City of Portland to provide notice before removing shelters erected at unauthorized campsites. This campsite will be cleared no less than 24 hours after the date and time of this posting. Shelter is available in Portland through area emergency shelters. For more information about shelter and other services, call the City's Social Services Administrator [at] 207-482-5122. All property confiscated from this camp will be maintained by Amistad at a storage facility for a minimum of one week. Property owners may contact Amistad for assistance locating confiscated property at 207-550-7920 Monday through Friday 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Property that remains unclaimed one week after its confiscation may be destroyed."
Though this notice says shelter is available in Portland, city officials said earlier in the month no beds were available. Photo by Emily Bader.

While he spoke Tuesday morning, Brown searched on his phone for a map of public lands in Portland. He and others were scrambling to figure out where the unhoused residents of Bayside Trail could go next. The yellow tags placed on tents, notifying residents that their “unauthorized campsite” would be removed, said “shelter is available in Portland through area emergency shelters,” even though city officials said earlier this month that no beds were available.

“I mean, it’s like, ‘OK, I can’t do this. I can’t do that. Where the hell can I go where I’m not going to be rousted out tomorrow? I’m bringing my whole life with me, breaking it down and moving it to this spot,’ ” he said.

“Are you going to tell me tomorrow, ‘Hey, what are you doing here?’ So that’s the tricky part.”

A ‘looming crisis’

Maine is short some 22,000 affordable housing units, said Cullen Ryan, the executive director of Community Housing of Maine. Fewer than 1,000 units are added to the housing stock every year, meaning it would take more than 20 years to fill the need.

“The last time we had an adequate supply of affordable housing was in 1977,” Ryan said.

The rental market only continues to get more expensive as vacancy rates decline, MaineHousing director Daniel Brennan said in a memo to a legislative committee last fall.

The fair market rent for a one- or two-bedroom apartment in the Portland metropolitan area for 2023 is 35% more than 2019. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development uses fair market rents as the standard for determining Section 8 housing vouchers.

The fair market rent for a two-bedroom apartment is unaffordable for the average household in all areas of Maine, Brennan said.

Compounding this is the end of the Emergency Rental Assistance Program, a pandemic-era federal program to assist those with rent costs, bills and other expenses. MaineHousing stopped accepting applications for the program last September.

A commission formed in the last legislative session to study housing called the end of the program a “looming crisis” and recommended that the legislature approve increasing the maximums for general assistance in its final report published in November.

Gov. Janet Mills earlier this month announced her revised budget package, which includes $12 million for the Emergency Housing Relief Fund and $80 million for various affordable housing programs.

A man stands amid piled up bags of what was cleared from the Bayside encampment while beyond a chain-linked fence are idling bulldozers.
The decision to tear down the encampment showed local officials are struggling with where to put thousands of unhoused people. Photo by Emily Bader.

But obtaining government housing help is a long process.

Bill, who declined to give his last name, said he got a housing voucher from the city in December. Six months later, on the same day the encampment was being cleared, he finally got word a one-bedroom apartment may have opened up.

“Housing in Portland is ridiculous, especially for people who don’t have any income and have no housing or anything like that. Even when you’re working, it’s hard to get into a place because they want first, last and security deposit,” he said.

“Who can come up with $4,000, $5,000, $6,000 before they move into an apartment, especially working a full-time job paying barely above minimum wage?”

As of March, HUD had distributed 13,874 housing choice vouchers to public housing authorities in Maine under the grant agreement called the Annual Contributions Contract, according to the most recent data available from HUD. Of those, 11,721 – about 85% – were reported leased, meaning that a recipient was able to find an available unit to lease using their voucher.

There were more than 2,000 vouchers distributed to housing authorities in Maine under the ACC that had yet to be utilized. That may because a voucher recipient had yet to find an available unit to rent; some vouchers were already committed to a project-based program, such as an affordable housing project under construction, and therefore not yet utilized; or, in some cases, because the local housing authority had exhausted their budget and reserves and were unable to fund additional units.

In Portland, for example, 1,870 housing choice vouchers distributed to the Portland Housing Authority were utilized as of March. There were an additional 273 vouchers that had not been utilized, likely some of which were already issued to recipients who had yet to find an available unit to rent and some of which were already committed to project-based vouchers.

Scarcity of resources

Meanwhile, Portland is currently housing about 1,200 people each night in one of the three city-run shelters or in hotels. Between 70-80% of individuals at the 208-bed Homeless Services Center are asylum seekers. The city’s family shelter is almost all asylum seekers as well, city staff said at a meeting Thursday. And the third shelter, a 300-bed temporary shelter at the Portland Expo, was opened in April specifically to serve asylees.

“It’s just the extra pressure of the asylum-seeking folks coming here,” Jeff Logan, the executive director and co-pastor of Grace-Street Ministry, said Tuesday on the Bayside Trail. “There’s just nothing. There’s no room at the inn for anybody.”

“I think the system is set up pretty well for the numbers of people who experience homelessness traditionally here, to meet their needs and actually decrease that number markedly. But it’s really hard for that to happen when the system is overwhelmed with a sudden population,” Ryan said in an interview earlier this month.

Federal law says asylum seekers must wait 180 days for authorization to work, which forces individuals and families to remain on municipal-run general assistance programs even longer. Members of Maine’s Congressional delegation have introduced legislation over the years to shorten the waiting period, and state lawmakers are exploring options for a federal waiver.

The shelters at the Portland Expo and Salvation Army were set up with “focused wrap-around services for newly arriving asylum-seeking families. The Homeless Services Center was built to house single individuals with available services focused on those who are circumstantially and chronically unhoused,” City of Portland spokesperson Jessica Grondin said in an email.

“We have reached capacity at all of our facilities. This is why we are advocating heavily for more transitional housing options for both families and individuals. … Having more transitional housing facilities for asylum seekers would open up more beds at the HSC for those who need the kind of wrap-around services that facility was designed to offer,” she said.

Housing at a shelter is offered on a first-come, first-served basis, Grondin said. Once an individual or a family is deemed eligible for general assistance and meets with social services staff, they are “offered a bed when one is available.”

An individual collects their belongings amid tents at the Bayside encampment.
Gov. Janet Mills earlier this month announced her revised budget package, which includes $12 million for the Emergency Housing Relief Fund and $80 million for various affordable housing programs. Photo by Emily Bader.

To clear the Bayside encampment while city shelters are largely filled with people who are part of a different community is rubbing salt in the wound, some unhoused people and advocates said.

But when a person applies for general assistance, “(the city is) not looking at them as an asylum seeker, they are looking at them as a person,” Mufalo Chitam, the executive director of the Maine Immigrants’ Rights Coalition, said Wednesday.

“God forbid something happened to them, you know, they lost their home, lost a job, they couldn’t pay the rent and, you know, here they are presenting at general assistance asking for help,” she said.

“They’re not titles or identities. They are just a human being who is needing that (help).”

With how the situation in Portland has played out, however, asylum seekers are “being looked at as the boot that’s to (homeless people’s) faces,” Chitam said.

“Creating situations where people are forced to compete for scarce resources only serves to promote disunity,” Chitam said, quoting board president and Bates College professor Val Carnegie from a meeting the day before.

Chitam’s organization, among others, have strongly advocated for more resources for the city’s homeless population, including placing a 30-day moratorium on clearing the Bayside encampment, as members of the Portland Emergency Shelter Assessment Committee.

“We have to look at the foundation of even this discussion, of you know, ‘them against us’ because there is a scarcity of housing,” Chitam said.

“We have to look at (it in) a much broader way. What got us here? Which system got us here?”

Update: This story was updated to include more recent data on housing choice vouchers from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Additional information on housing choice voucher programs in Maine, both statewide and via the Portland Housing Authority, were added for clarification.

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Emily Bader

Emily Bader is a health care and general assignment reporter for The Maine Monitor. She joined the Monitor in April 2023 from the Sun Journal in Lewiston, Maine, where she covered health care for two years and was a University of Southern California Center for Health Journalism Data Fellow. Prior to that, she was a staff writer for The Lakes Region Weekly in Cumberland County. Emily has earned several awards, including the Maine Press Association’s Bob Drake Young Writer Award in 2021, the New England Newspaper & Press Association’s Publick Occurrences Award in 2022 and most recently, the Maine Public Health Association’s journalism award. Emily was born and raised in Los Angeles and earned her bachelor’s degree in International Relations from Wellesley College.
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