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Homelessness task force report a promising start

Earlier this month, members of a new homelessness task force presented their recommendations to a packed State of Maine room in City Hall.
The size and composition of the audience was an indicator of what a serious issue this has become for Portland. There were the homeless advocates and social service agencies you'd expect to see there. But nearly half of the people in the room were wearing suits: business people who were there out of a concern about the impact of homelessness on Portland's ability to grow and thrive.
Homelessness in Portland is emerging as a major black eye to the city. Our city might be growing and attracting new businesses, but the number of mentally ill individuals and panhandlers in the Old Port and on Congress Street gives a different impression.
And a less superficial look at the problem reveals even more troubling issues.
The city's new task force found that homelessness in Portland is on the rise. The city's emergency shelters have been overflowing every night since June 2011, with over 400 individuals seeking shelter on any given night. Walk by the Oxford Street shelter in the evening and you'll see men packed like sardines, sleeping on the floor of the community room for lack of space in the bunkrooms.
Right now, Portland doesn't really have a homelessness plan, and the resulting policy is reactive, shortsighted, and expensive. The working poor aren't supported with quality services, health care treatment, or housing until they show up at their wits' end at the doorstep of the shelter or in the hospital emergency room. At that point, taxpayers and paying health insurance customers pay out the nose to deal with their personal crises.
It doesn't make much sense to pay emergency room doctors to take care of homeless individuals on cold nights, or for police to take care of the city's alcoholics by taking them to jail. The task force estimates that our current, disorganized system costs the region $6.7 million a year.
Alternatively, the task force proposes new low-income housing, hiring new caseworkers for chronically homeless individuals, and a centralized intake center where social workers can connect homeless individuals with the services they need. This strategy would do more to prevent chronic homelessness, and cost much less to boot.
Still, it will take money — more money than the City of Portland is likely to pay on its own. Ultimately, homelessness is a regional problem, and it needs a regional solution.
In this respect, the task force's draft report needs more work. The final version needs a feasible plan for financing the new housing and services that it recommends.
For instance, in financial terms, health care is a huge part of the problem. Many homeless individuals suffer from chronic and expensive health issues, for which they only receive treatment (at great expense, and minimal effectiveness) in the emergency room.
The City of Portland, by and large, doesn't pay for those multi-million dollar healthcare bills. Instead, other patients and businesses from all over Maine pay for them, because hospitals and state health agencies absorb the costs of homeless care by charging higher prices, or by rationing health services for the rest of us.
Instead of forcing households and businesses statewide to pay for the homeless problem in Portland, or (even less realistically) expecting local Portland taxpayers to pick up the slack, hospitals and insurance companies need to pitch in — and save money by keeping homeless people out of the emergency room — by providing a down payment for the new housing and caseworkers that the task force calls for.
Another big challenge comes from the fact that assistance from Augusta, like the state government's relevance in general, is on the wane. Ramping up new social services while also maintaining emergency shelter services in the short term will be a big challenge.
And last but not least by any means, the task force barely even mentions the broader regional and local housing shortages that are forcing the region's working poor into Portland's shelters. Uncontroversial zoning reforms (such as repealing the city's 1960s-era parking mandates for affordable housing developments, and reducing lot setbacks in urban neighborhoods) could go a long way towards legalizing more middle-income and low-income housing throughout the city. Meaningful zoning reform would also generate more new tax revenue to help pay for better social services.
The homelessness task force's report is a great start towards confronting the region's most serious threat to future economic growth. But in the end, whether it succeeds will depend on whether the city, its hospitals, and regional business leaders can agree on a way to pay for more housing and better healthcare for our most vulnerable citizens.
(Christian MilNeil is a blogger at “The Vigorous North: A field guide to the wilderness areas of American cities,” www.vigorousnorth.com.)

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