Photo by Gregory Rec

Annual survey shows Portland’s problem of homelessness by the numbers

They trekked through snowy fields and wooded areas, along icy roads and railroad tracks, up slippery embankments and down slushy paths.

Six teams of volunteers and social service workers fanned out across Portland on Wednesday night to conduct the city’s annual point-in-time count of homeless people as required by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. The full tally, which won’t be available for a few days, will include any people who spent the night outdoors or in one of the city’s shelters.

Kelley Walsh was on a five-member team that scoured the outer reaches of Deering Oaks, the woods behind Bruno’s Restaurant and the Portland Boxing Club on outer Forest Avenue, and a section of Marginal Way along Interstate 295. Walsh, who works for an agency that serves victims of domestic violence, said she volunteered for the count because homelessness is a significant challenge for many of her clients.

“I did it last year and it was very enlightening,” Walsh said. “A majority of our clients deal with homelessness in some way.”

The teams found one campsite occupied by two people who agreed to be counted, and another campsite occupied by one person who declined to be counted, said Angela Giordano, director of  Oxford Street Shelter. Last year’s outdoor search turned up no unsheltered people.

Admissions at the Oxford Street Shelter and the overflow shelter at the Preble Street resource center averaged 215 people last week, Giordano said. Combined, those shelters have 229 beds. Admissions averaged 198 people in December, which is below the December 2014 average of 231 people and the three-year average of 225 people for that month in 2012, 2013 and 2014, Giordano said.

“We’ve seen a steady decline over the last six to nine months,” Giordano said.

Mayor Ethan Strimling met with the teams at the Oxford Street Shelter before they headed out shortly after 5 p.m.

“My hope is that you’ll find nobody, but I know that’s probably not the case, so I hope you find everybody,” Strimling said. “You will be saving lives by doing what you’re doing tonight.”

Communities around the country have experienced a 26 percent drop in the number of people living on the streets and cut homelessness among veterans by 36 percent, according to HUD. Based on last year’s point-in-time survey, Maine experienced a 13 percent decrease in overall homelessness from 2014 to 2015, along with an 11.5 percent decrease in chronic homelessness and a 7.7 percent decrease in family homelessness. However, the overall number of homeless Mainers counted last year – 2,372 individuals – was about the same as 2010.

Locally, Portland’s Long Term Stayer Initiative, a collaboration including the city and several service providers, recently set a goal to find permanent housing for 70 people who were long-term stayers at the Oxford Street Shelter. To date, all but six of those people have been housed, and plans call for the rest to be housed over the course of the next few months, said Jessica Grondin, city spokeswoman.

William Burney, director of the HUD field office in Maine, and Jon Bradley, associate director of Preble Street, an agency that serves homeless people, participated in Wednesday night’s count. HUD requires all federally funded homeless service providers nationwide to conduct an annual count of homeless people on a given night each January. Portland does it on the last Wednesday of the month.

Despite an overall decline in homelessness, Portland officials have noted an increase in homeless people sleeping outside, even as encampments and overgrown areas around the city have been cleared.

“You won’t see as many now because of the weather and because a concerted effort is being made to get people indoors,” Bradley said.

The hum of Interstate 295 was constant Wednesday evening as Mike Guthrie, one of the city’s case workers, led his team of counters along the back side of Deering Oaks, a sprawling park in the center of Portland. Guthrie pointed to a gully along the highway that was cleared recently. Several people used to camp there, Guthrie said.

Guthrie’s team found a few empty encampments, remote, ramshackle places where some homeless people stay rather than spending nights in a crowded shelter, especially if they’re dealing with mental health and substance abuse issues.

“It’s sad and it’s discouraging,” Guthrie admitted. “Despite everything we do, there are still people we can’t get to. But I’m out here because nobody should have to be homeless.”

Kelley Bouchard

Portland Press Herald