Mainers without permanent housing worry ‘there is no help out there’ amid pandemic

Sat, 04/18/2020 - 9:15am

    As people across Maine prepare to spend the next month in their homes, those without permanent housing are increasingly worried about how they and their families will stay healthy during what is expected to be the peak period of transmission.

    Windham native Latoya Williams had been out of work for months when she secured a housekeeping position at a Portland-area bed and breakfast in March. But the spread of COVID-19 forced the owners to close the inn before she could even start, leaving her with the dwindling unemployment payments from her previous job to support herself and her two children. 

    When Beacon spoke with Williams on April 2, her family was living in a Westbrook motel. However, she said it was the last day that she could afford to stay there and that she was planning to move into her car. 

    “I can’t live out of my car with my kids, but yeah, that’s essentially what I have to do,” Williams said.

    “I’m not 100 percent sure where we’re gonna go,” she said.

    ‘There is literally no help’

    For the past four years, Williams and her children had lived in Windham with her parents. 

    Eventually, she said, the loss of her assembly job at a Portland engineering company paired with other circumstances at home pushed her over the edge. Williams and her children moved out. 

    Williams is still receiving unemployment benefits, but said she will need to reapply in April and navigate a system now overwhelmed by applicants. Roughly 45,200 Mainers filed for unemployment between March 14 and March 28, which is 9,800 more than the 35,400 people who filed throughout the entirety of 2019.

    Williams said she was told by a General Assistance worker she doesn’t “really qualify” for assistance, which can be denied if a person’s income, including unemployment, is more than their total monthly expenses for rent, food, utilities, and other necessities, according to Pine Tree Legal, a non-profit legal aid organizations.

    The confusion around what benefits she may be eligible for and the uncertainty of her housing situation have convinced Williams that the resources just aren’t there in Maine.

    “There is literally no help out there for people like me, in my position,” she said.

    Mainers without housing among most vulnerable in the country

    As COVID-19 continues to spread, homeless shelters across the state have either been temporarily closed to new guests or have restricted the number of people who can be accommodated.

    Last week, two people who stayed at the Oxford Street Shelter in Portland tested positive for the virus and over 30 people have since been quarantined at the Portland Expo Center as part of a strategy developed between state and local officials. 

    “We’ve been working very closely with not just the CDC team, but other agencies within the Department of Health and Human Services, as well as other agencies across Maine state government, for example the Maine State Housing Authority,” Dr. Nirav Shah, director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, said during an April 3 press conference. “We certainly involved city officials very early on. […] It’s been developed in concert with all of those actors.”

    According to data from the U.S. Health Resources and Services Administration analyzed by The Washington Post, people without housing in Maine are among the most medically underserved in the entire country and consequently are at a greater risk of contracting COVID-19.

    On April 4, Governor Janet Mills shuttered hotel and motel lodging to all people except frontline workers and vulnerable populations, including Mainers without housing like Williams. Anti-poverty advocates in Portland and across the state have been pushing for a more specific policy to provide empty hotel rooms to people who have no long-term place to stay.

    California, another state where people without housing are among the most medically underserved, recently announced a plan to provide 15,000 hotel rooms for people without housing during the pandemic.

    It was also announced last week that the state will receive $16.5 million in funds authorized by the CARES Act from the Department of Housing and Urban Development to support affordable housing options for people without, or at risk of being without, housing. 

    Portland will receive the most of any individual city: $1,137,154 from HUD’s Community Development Block Grant program and another $573,734 from the Emergency Solutions Grants program. How these grants will be used has not yet been made public.

    ‘A place to live, not a jail cell to rot in’

    With fewer places for people without housing to turn to, advocates are concerned that they will be subject to unfair treatment by law enforcement.

    On March 31, Mills issued a month-long ‘stay at home’ order. Though there is no specific guidance for people without housing, violations of the mandate could be treated as Class E crimes subject to up to six months in jail and a $1,000 fine.

    In Portland’s Bayside neighborhood, where both Preble Street and the Oxford Street Shelter are located, the situation has grown tense. Without shelters and other resources available during the pandemic, people without housing and struggling with substance use disorder are increasingly congregating on the streets.

    In response, Portland city councilor Kim Cook dubbed the neighborhood “a bastion of lawlessness” and encouraged law enforcement to “reclaim order in Bayside.”

    “’If we can’t bring that back to order I really think we need to call in the county and the sheriffs and the state and whatever resources they have to bear to reclaim order in Bayside,” Cook told News Center Maine.

    But Jess Falero, a 22-year-old housing advocate and co-founder of the People’s Housing Coalition, who has been without permanent housing since they were 18, told Beacon that the situation in Bayside and elsewhere can only be relieved by providing people, like them and Williams, a permanent place to live.

    “Right now, what people without housing need is a place to live, not a jail cell to rot in,” said Falero, who recently relocated from Portland to Boothbay to stay with a friend during the pandemic.

    “I’ve been in that position,” Falero continued. “The stress is tremendous as is. Add in the increased risk of catching this virus and you’ll get people trying to cope whatever way they can, unless they get the housing they need.”

    Cara DeRose is a staff writer for Beacon. A graduate of the University of Southern Maine, she served as writer and copy editor for the USM Free Press and interned at the Portland Press Herald.