“You’re nobody without the trappings of belonging”: What it means to be homeless

Back in December, I attended the Institute for Civic Leadership’s Leadership in Action Breakfast, which featured two advocates for those experiencing homelessness — Mark Swann, executive director of Preble Street, and Suzanne McCormick, executive director of the United Way of Greater Portland. Both served on the city of Portland’s homeless prevention task force (along with Avesta’s President and CEO, Dana Totman) and had compelling information and experiences to share about homelessness in Portland.

Suzanne described her day shadowing employees at the day shelter, where an elderly man was ill with a cold and wanted nothing more than to lie down and rest. But, as Suzanne recounted, lying down is not allowed at the day shelter. This example seemed to really resonate with the crowd, and stuck with me. I take for granted all the comforts that a stable home provides, like a bed to lie in when I’m sick, that those experiencing homelessness must do without. A bed, a place to simply rest, becomes a luxury.

This account will be on my mind tomorrow during Homeless Voices for Justice’s Summer Solstice “sit-out” in Post Office Park in Portland. The summer solstice is the longest day for those experiencing homelessness, and the event demonstrates solidarity and increases community awareness of homelessness during the summer months.

I’ll also be thinking of this moving account of what it means to be homeless that Mark Swann read at that December event. It was written by Bill, a client of the Preble Street Resource Center.

Being homeless means waking up on the floor, mere inches away from a total stranger. It means hoping you can find a seat in the soup kitchen because it is frequently standing room only and you may have to eat standing up. It means walking around in somebody else’s clothes because you don’t have money to buy your own. They don’t fit right but it was the closest you could find from the clothing closet. The shelter had socks so at least your feet are dry, unless it rains and the holes in your shoes start taking in water.

It means carrying everything you own, everything, in a back pack or a black trash bag, trying not to remember when it wasn’t so — the job, the apartment, the wife, the car, the sanity, try to forget the losses, except you can’t because nobody will let you forget — you’re nobody without the trappings of belonging. People will look at you with pity or disgust — hard to know which feels worse. You feel an asthma attack coming on and remember you don’t have an inhaler because you don’t have MaineCare. You hope it’s not too bad and that you can get to the hospital in time if it is. But, who will call 911?

If you’re a woman, you may have to do things your mother told you never to do because you simply can’t take one more night on the floor of the shelter.

It means if you’re a senior citizen, sitting between the two bathrooms at Preble St. and being fearful of leaving because you’re never sure when you’ll have to go.

It means watching from the shadows as the other half lives its life out in the sunshine full of hope and prosperity. And not having either yourself.

Post by Mindy Woerter, Communications Manager

By Mindy Woerter, Communications Manager

The philosophy that guides our advocacy work

At Avesta, we pride ourselves on being active and engaged advocates for safe, decent, affordable housing. We know we need to speak up and explain the cause we work tirelessly on each and every day. The hundreds of people who call and visit our offices every week seeking a roof over their heads are both sobering and motivating.

Our expertise is cobbling together an array of financial resources, which leads to the construction of new housing, preservation of existing housing, new senior living options or guidance to those just seeking information. It is common for a new development to have five to 10 layers of financing, each critical to the project’s completion. Our new HomeOwnership Center and its services are made possible by a wide variety of small grants and bank contributions.

In recent weeks, as Congress works on a federal budget, we have been called on repeatedly to advocate for funding of many specific federal housing programs. These calls are often requests that we advocate for one specific program that may well represent one of the layers of financing in a recent development. We are asked to call or write our Congressional delegation to remind them how important this program is.

And while we recognize the importance of advocacy for housing programs, these requests raise for us a critical question: How do we decide which program to advocate for the most? We struggle to decide which is more important: the federal home block grant program that helps us build new housing, the continuum of care funding for homeless people or the housing counseling funds for those dealing with foreclosures. We can’t pick one program over another when we know the impact that each has on people in need.

Do we turn our backs and instead just leave it to the whims of the administration, Congress and the Washington insiders? Do we claim to be advocates but hide when hard decisions need to be made? We can’t do that either. We are, to our core, to our mission and to our hearts, advocates. We created the Maine Affordable Housing Coalition, we serve on the board of the National Low-Income Housing Coalition and we actively participate in many state and federal groups whose aim is to ensure everyone has a place to call home.

Instead, we prefer to advocate for a more holistic approach that recognizes that — while the vast majority of housing programs are effective and important — the overall housing budget is woefully inadequate to meet the needs of low- and moderate-income people in Maine and across the nation. We call for broader discussions on reforming tax policy and examining a redirection of the mortgage interest deduction to better target those who need assistance. We ask that our government step back and figure out what seniors really need for housing so they can live independently as long as possible. We ask that the recommendations of the Bipartisan Policy Center’s Housing Commission be considered and not shelved, as is often the fate of reports such as these.

We believe in the power of advocacy, but also in being thoughtful in how we use that power, so that when we lend our voice it can be the most effective instead of getting lost in the din. Deciding when and how to speak up isn’t easy, but for us, the question that guides our actions is: What do we really need to do to help the hundreds who come to us this week in search of affordable homes with little hope?

To fight for one program without acknowledging the value of the others is contributing to the balkanization of housing efforts that ultimately undermines the true intent of advocacy work, which is to improve the lives of people in need of housing. It is important that as advocates we not lose sight of broader housing policy by focusing only on the tiny slivers of specific programs.

By Dana Totman, President and CEO

Bipartisan report suggests creative approaches to addressing nation’s housing problems

On Feb. 25, the Bipartisan Policy Center’s Housing Commission released its recommendations for changes to national housing policy in a report entitled, “Housing America’s Future: New Directions for National Policy.” It is a comprehensive report that covers a lot of ground – from reforming the housing finance system and improving rural housing, to allowing more seniors to age in place and expanding the availability of affordable housing to people in need.

The report is a culmination of 16 months of research by the commission, which was first established in October 2011 to set a new direction for federal housing policy. The co-chairs are Maine’s own former U.S. Senator George Mitchell, former U.S. Sen. Mel Martinez (R-FL), former HUD Secretary Henry Cisneros, and former U.S. Sen. Christopher Bond (R-MO).

To provide the framework for their efforts, the commission organized a series of forums with housing professionals and practitioners around the country, including one last summer in Mount Desert Island. Avesta Housing, the Maine Affordable Housing Coalition, and other groups provided local support for the forum and offered testimony to the members of the commission. Much of that testimony focused on the dire shortage of housing options for extremely low-income families in Maine.

To address that problem, the commission recommends that our nation transition to a system in which all households with incomes at or below 30% of the area median income are assured access to rental assistance. As it stands now, most of these vulnerable families must wait years to receive a housing voucher, often while living in unhealthy or dangerous conditions.

Other key recommendations for addressing the affordable housing crisis include:

Expanding the Low Income Housing Tax Credit program by 50% over current funding levels, to build up to 400,000 more quality housing units over a 10-year period

Addressing the capital backlog in public housing to improve quality and energy efficiency

Providing short-term emergency assistance to low-income renters (30%-80% of area median income) who suffer temporary setbacks, to ensure stability and prevent homelessness

While much work will be needed to turn these recommendations into reality, there is no question that they represent a thoughtful and important analysis of our country’s most pressing housing problems and how they can be better addressed.

But one of the most lasting legacies of the report may be the support it offers to reforming the way our country’s tax code treats the homeownership and rental housing sectors. Specifically, the report states, “the commission recommends consideration of further modifications to federal tax incentives for homeownership to allow for an increase in the level of support provided to affordable rental housing…. A portion of any revenue generated in changes in tax subsidies for homeownership should be devoted to expanding support for rental housing programs for low-income populations in need of affordable housing.”

Such a reform of America’s tax code represents perhaps our greatest opportunity for ending homelessness and addressing America’s worst-case housing needs. Lowering the cap on the amount of mortgage for which interest can be deducted — from $1,000,000 to $500,000 — and converting the tax deduction to a 15% non-refundable tax credit would assist 16 million more low- and moderate-income homeowners who do not currently benefit from the mortgage interest deduction. It would also save $200 billion over 10 years — money that could be used to end homelessness and provide rental assistance to those with the greatest rental housing needs.

The engagement on such a critical tax fairness issue by the moderate, well-respected voices at the Bipartisan Policy Center comes at a particularly important time, as members of Congress prepare to file legislation that would affect precisely the kind of change to the tax code that the report recommends.

Stay tuned for more on this topic in the coming weeks.

By Greg Payne, Development Officer/Coordinator, Maine Affordable Housing Coalition