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Help on the way for area homeless
NORWAY — A group of community leaders met last week to address a problem that has become all-too-common in the region: homelessness.
After a discussion led by Anne Stanley, of Norway's Christ Episcopal Church, the group decided to move forward with plans designed to help those in need to navigate the bewildering array of services that may be available to them.
If the group accomplishes its goals, those who are are at risk of homelessness in the region will have an opportunity to sit down with a trained volunteer who can walk them through the process of procuring aid from the various sources that provide help.
Paula Palladino, the director of group services at Rumford Group Homes, agreed to spearhead an effort to compile a comprehensive resource directory, which would include information on everything from replacing your birth certificate to addiction treatment resources to finding food and housing.
There was a diversity of opinion as to what might be an appropriate setting for providing these counseling services. Some in the group favored the idea of volunteers sitting in multiple places, such as the municipal libraries of Norway and Paris, and the church. Others felt that a more permanent location, such as the Progress Center, might be a better bet.
One state official in attendance was very impressed with the group's early progress.
The number and diversity of representation is "amazing to me," said Scott Tibbitts, who serves as the coordinator of homeless services for the Maine State Housing Authority. "It's wonderful."
Tibbitts says that community recognition of homelessness is spreading quickly in the state.
"There are groups like this springing up all over the state right now," said Tibbitts. "The last couple of months I've heard from groups in [several counties in the state]."
The activity, says Tibbitts, shows that communities around the state are reacting to a problem that has not been addressed for decades.
"I haven't seen this much grassroots activity around homelessness since I first started in this field in the 80s," said Tibbitts.
A complicated problem
Pervasive throughout the discussion was recognition of the fact that homelessness is not an isolated problem. Rather, it is the end result of other problems that have culminated in homelessness. Once a person or family is homeless, yet more problems arise that can make it difficult for the family to regain permanent housing.
Stanley spoke of area residents who have sought to share the rent costs of cramped apartments.
"People are sort of joining up with other families, living with other families because they can't pay the rent anymore," said Stanley, "and they're not supposed to live with other people, because there are restrictions on this apartment. They move on to that apartment, pile all the kids together. The kids go to school in their old school. They don't want to give their new address because they don't want to admit that they're homeless. So they can't get the benefits that they actually need to get and deserve."
Norway Town Manager David Holt said that the problem of homelessness can create problems, both emotional and financial, for the larger community.
"Some people feel ... great sympathy and worry, and some people feel a lot of anger, and almost hatred," said Holt.
He noted that many General Assistance recipients are attracted to Norway from outlying areas.
"A lot of the folks that we have don't have any particular roots in Norway, per se," said Holt. "If we're not careful, we can place unbearable burdens on the communities that we serve. ... Without some improvements in the system, even towns like Norway that want to do the right thing, will be in trouble."
State, federal response shifting
Tibbitts says that the federal and state response to homelessness in Maine has been less than ideal.
The federal department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) performs an annual headcount in order to identify populations of homeless people. The headcount is used to direct aid and resources appropriately.
The headcount, however, is particularly problematic in Maine, which has local factors that cause the numbers of homeless to be traditionally under-reported.
"HUD requires that the count happens during the last 10 days in January," said Tibbitts. "Their logic is that you're more likely to find people in shelters, and not unsheltered."
But seasonal patterns in Maine don't show up in a winter snapshot of data.
"We in Maine do seem to have more homeless folks in the summertime," said Tibbitts. "Our numbers actually spike in summer."
The snapshot count has been stable over the last few years, but Tibbitts says that the data is unreliable.
"That could be seen as a good thing, but knowing what the availability is, I think it's because our resources are maxed out," said Tibbitts. "If you only have 800 or 900 beds, and those 800 or 900 beds are full, that's as high as you can go. Everyone else has to find someplace else to go. We're not creating new shelter beds."
Maine is particularly vulnerable to under-counting for two primary reasons, said Tibbitts.
"A lot of that has to do with landlords not being able to evict people during the winter," he said. Also, "we see an increasing number of immigrant workers in Maine during the harvest. A lot of them are transient, homeless people, moving from place to place."
A further complication is that HUD's traditional strategy to address homelessness has ignored the old adage "an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure."
The traditional effort, says Tibbitts, "is focused on moving people out of emergency shelters. Unfortunately, that has led to a structure that almost requires people to go to the shelter before they can get assistance. We are trying to move away from that."
Tibbitts says that future efforts are likely to be better-placed.
"HUD is now realizing that that was probably a mistake on their part," said Tibbitts.
A new federal response to homelessness, funded by the American Recovery Act, will seek to address the problems of people who are at risk of becoming homeless.
"It is focused on preventing people from becoming homeless in the first place," said Tibbitts.
The group's members plan to meet again in early February, at which time they hope to continue to work on the resource guide.
Palladino said that the group might qualify for a $3,000 - $5,000 grant to help it in its work. At least some of this money would be used to establish basic office equipment at the help sites, such as a computer and printer, so that volunteers could more easily help those seeking aid.