Applications for housing and other aid on the rise, Biddeford City Council hears

Reverend Shirley Bowen Derek Davis Photo/Portland Press Herald

BIDDEFORD – Reverend Shirley Bowen laid out the numbers – the increase in requests for help finding accommodation and the few responses available, the increase in the number of new people the agency she serves is seeing and more – to Biddeford Town Council.

“We’ve gone from one family calling a week looking for housing to one a day, and sometimes as many as five calls, and they’re desperate and sobbing on the phone,” said Bowen, of the Seeds of Hope Neighborhood. Center. “They are families, and they have nowhere to go.”

She said that within 24 hours she had received emails from two different families, a mother of four and a mother of five, including a child with special needs, looking for accommodation.

“And we didn’t have answers for them,” she told city council on June 21 — the same night the council approved a resolution asking the state to increase its involvement in the search for better results for homeless people. “The reality is there’s nothing available, even if people had funds, there’s no place to go and it’s a crisis. … I don’t use the term to People get desperate.

Housing costs, especially for rental units, are rising at rates above inflation, the city’s resolution notes, which it says may lead to further problems.

Bowen, who is also part of the Mayor’s Affordable Housing Task Force, spoke of the increase in the number of people she and others see at Seeds of Hope, where people go for a meal and ask help applying for jobs, accessing government services, health promotion and education. The center provides advocacy for veterans and the homeless.

In April, the neighborhood center served 699 meals and welcomed 44 new people who had not come before. In May, the center served 741 meals and welcomed 44 new people, she said. As of June 21, with several days remaining in the month, the center has served 582 meals, with 30 people new to the center.

“Of those we know of in unstable accommodation, there are 31 who are camping or simply on the streets and two arrived today, 11 more than last week,” she said. “Ten are sleeping at the station, 13 are couch surfing, four more than last week; six sleep in their car or recreational vehicle, one more than last week; and seven are staying at the Thacher (hotel) with support from General Assistance.

“It’s a huge problem and not an easy one,” Bowen said.

And there are no easy answers. Biddeford, like some other municipalities, is asking for state aid.

Biddeford’s resolution calls on the governor, backed by legislative leaders, to create a formal task force of elected and professional staff to make improvements to state and local responses for those who are unhoused.

“From my point of view, the state absolutely needs to get more involved, because this is not just a local problem, and it cannot be solved by Biddeford, or Sanford, or Portland, or whatever.” , Mayor Alan Casavant said in response to an email. search for comment. “All communities need to be collectively involved in caring for the homeless, because even if on paper they don’t have homeless people, it’s because they move to cities where services and programs are available.

He called Bowen’s numbers shocking.

“There are no immediate short-term solutions as there are no funds in the Biddeford budget for this situation and attempts to fund programs or housing simply take money away from other needs. or services,” Casavant continued. “There are American Rescue Plan Act funds, and Reverend Shirley is going to apply, but there were, I believe, 28 entities seeking those funds.”

Casavant said there isn’t enough housing in the city, “and that drives up prices in a supply and demand scenario.” And, he noted, much of Maine is in the same situation, compounding the problem.

City staff work with those in homeless camps, he said, who tend to come and go with the seasons.

“The city recognizes the problem and that it won’t just go away, but there are no quick and easy fixes, which is very frustrating for the city and very scary…for those affected,” Casavant said. . “I don’t believe cities in Maine can unilaterally pay for housing issues because state and federal money is needed.”

Portland, he said, which houses about 1,700 people each night, is a good example of how costs can escalate.

There are long-term possibilities, but none are immediate, Casavant said.

“The Devine development near Highway 111 will contribute $500,000 to affordable housing, but it’s down the road,” he said. “The city also plans to TIF the Harrington project on the Diamond Match property, using those tax dollars for affordable housing, but that too is on the way. Biddeford Housing Authority is building affordable housing behind St. James’s School, but that too isn’t ready for tomorrow.

The vote to approve the resolution was unanimous.

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