This article was written by Hannah Laclaire, a reporter at the Times Record, and published on 12/01/2020. You can find the article online here.
BRUNSWICK — When Alex Powell moved into his own Bath apartment after living in Tedford Housing’s adult homeless shelter for almost nine months, he was ready to take a deep breath and start fresh. But after the boxes were unpacked and the groceries put away, the silence set in and he knew his path was just beginning.
Powell, 61, has struggled with homelessness for decades. He is one of 57 people served through Tedford Housing’s adult homeless shelter in 2020, and one of the 37% who left the shelter for permanent housing.
The agency’s apartment-style family shelter served 53 family members. Of those, about 62% exited to permanent housing, according to the organization’s annual report.
Powell knows he is one of the lucky ones.
Listening to the driving rain and the howling wind during Monday night’s storm, he was grateful he wasn’t sleeping outside.
“I’m thankful I was able to sit down and listen,” he added. My reward is a roof over my head, food to eat and a lot to be thankful for.”
For every person served by Tedfors, many more are turned away due to lack of space. In 2020, Tedford turned away 266 individuals and 133 family members.
This lack of space has only been compounded by the coronavirus pandemic, which has forced the adult shelter on Cumberland Street to limit its number of beds from 16 to 10 in order to allow for physical distancing. Because the family shelter on Federal Street is made up of six self contained units, officials have not had to limit capacity there.
“It’s a hard hit to lose six beds,” Executive Director Rota Knott said Tuesday. “It doesn’t sound like much, but for six people who are now living in a tent in 20-degree weather in a storm like we had last night … that’s a tough thing.”
The agency has also instituted other changes, including remaining open throughout the day, instituting hazard pay for employees and requiring a negative COVID-19 test for new guests. At the beginning of the pandemic, officials, with the help of town staff, moved half the guests to hotel rooms, but everyone has since moved back or moved on. So far there have not been any positive cases.
Already struggling with reduced capacity, Knott said the pandemic has also made it harder for people to find housing, which is lengthening their stay at the shelter and decreasing turnover.
This year, the average length of stay for an adult guest at the shelter was 88 days — a more than one-month increase for the 53-day average in 2019. The trend is mirrored for families, whose average length stay of 134 days is a 42-day jump from the year before.
“Finding housing has been a significant challenge because the agencies and the services we need to connect to are overwhelmed” or working with limited hours, Knott said.
Plus, the moratorium on evictions means fewer units are opening up and most people who are able to are hunkering down.
The need is rapidly increasing as the weather gets colder, but the beds just aren’t available.
State officials have stepped up the support for general assistance, Knott said, but the general assistance offices are struggling to keep up with the influx.
“We’ve worked hard with the local offices to make sure we’re getting folks into hotel rooms to get shelter for them,” she said, but it’s a far cry from the support Tedford can provide.
“It’s great for a roof over their heads but it doesn’t come with the case management, access to housing vouchers, finding an apartment and all the other pieces of the puzzle,” she said. But for now, it addresses the most pressing need: “getting folks out of the cold.”
According to Knott, Tedford can still serve some of the people who aren’t able to get into the shelter through the recently revamped homelessness prevention and outreach program.
This year, the agency served 293 people through prevention and outreach, an increase from 195 last year. This helps provide case management for the increasing tide of people who can’t find a bed, and also helps offset the loss of funding from shelter’s reduced capacity (the organization bills MaineCare based on the number of people served).
Not being able to meet the growing needs of the community is not something new.
Tedford officials have been exploring increasing the shelter’s capacity for years, and in 2018 approached the town with plans to build a 70-bed shelter and resource center in town.
Town officials quickly realized Brunswick didn’t have ordinances regulating homeless shelters, despite the fact that Tedford had been operating in town for decades. This sparked a year’s worth of meetings and hearings that ended in April 2019 with the approval of a new zoning ordinance, allowing Tedford to move forward with its plans.
However, the agency missed its window of opportunity during the drawn-out process, and had to go back to the drawing board.
The project seemingly took a back seat when previous director Craig Phillips retired. Knott started in January and then just a few months later the pandemic hit, taking all their attention.
According to Knott, while it has perhaps not been the top priority, the need is still there and the idea never went away.
Now, with the need for more space more acute than ever, staff are starting to look at their options again, whether it means building a new shelter, new resource center or finding another solution.
“We’re regrouping, starting that process again,” she said.
So far, for the first three months of the 2020-21 fiscal year, the agency has already had to turn 88 individuals, 40 of whom were from Brunswick.
Of those, 15 eventually did get into the shelter. For families, whose place of origin is not recorded, shelter officials had to turn away 25 families and only five eventually made it into the shelter.
Knott expects the numbers from the second and third quarters, the colder months, will reflect an even grimmer picture as those who have been staying in campgrounds or other outdoor sites need to come inside.
Powell, meanwhile, is hoping for the best but acknowledged the realities of his struggle.
Combatting health issues and substance use disorder, he has been a recurring guest at Tedford since 2001, and though he’s found his way into housing before, “for some kind of reason, it seemed like I couldn’t just get it right,” he said.
“Once you move into that apartment, that’s not the whole picture,” he said, “that’s not even half of it. You have to begin living your life all by yourself again… I like being around people. I don’t do well by myself.”
He credits the people at Tedford and in Brunswick with helping him get back on his feet, but hopes others realize how easy it is to be in that situation.
“I would say that the rest of the country, whether or not they’d admit it, they’re living from paycheck to paycheck as well,” he said. “A lot of people we don’t realize are a step away from being homeless.”