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Homelessness in Maine is exhausting

by | Jun 19, 2021 | Housing, Life in Maine, Spotlight

As the cost of living goes up, wages remain stagnant, and eviction moratoriums are lifted, a slew of individuals are becoming homeless. Homelessness does not discriminate—it happens to the elderly and the young, people escaping domestic violence, single parents, and people of all races and genders. When all of us feel the squeeze and a real estate “boom” has property owners trading properties like Pokemon cards, people are getting flung out into the streets whether they paid rent or not.

According to usich.gov, as of January 2020, Maine had an estimated 2,100 people that were homeless. The data is compiled through different methodologies, most notably through the Homeless Management Information Systems (HMIS) which estimates the number and demographics of people who use emergency shelters and transitional housing during a twelve-month period. The numbers we’re left with don’t reflect the totality of homeless populations and are merely a snapshot.

Homeless encampment at Portland City Hall, August 2020. Photo courtesy Maine Public.

You can’t just waltz into a shelter. Your property is put in storage and may be sold if you are unable to claim it in time or pay monthly fees. You will most likely be unable to take your beloved pet. Family shelters often require that a mother, rather than a father, be present with children, leaving obvious barriers for single fathers. Many require background checks, require you to be drug-free, and more recently, negative COVID test results. Some shelters are very devotedly religious.

Not every person dealing with homelessness willingly enters a shelter. Some are wary of shelters in general. People that have past negative experiences with shelters might not be eager to go back, especially if they’ve had a history of living in institutions or congregate settings. Because shelters are structured and come with their own set of rules, it is a far cry from living in your own home or on the street. Being in a shelter also means that you’re coming into contact with people you don’t know. Having a disability that may include owning a service animal or accessibility equipment could make it even more difficult, if not impossible. With around a quarter of the homeless population self-reporting a mental health diagnosis, the hurdles scattered along the path back to secure housing become higher.

One way that homeless people with particular mental health diagnoses can establish permanent housing is receiving and utilizing a BRAP voucher. BRAP stands for “Bridging Rental Assistance Program.” Like most voucher programs, it requires documentation to prove your eligibility.

BRAP is a transitional rental subsidy program with tenants paying 51 percent of their gross income (this was reduced to 40 percent last year). So, before you can use your paltry salary or benefit allotment, it will be parlayed into the hands of the landlord and the difference is covered by the state. Almost half of your income goes to rent. You must receive SSI or SSDI (Supplemental Security Income and social Security Disability Insurance, respectively) or actively apply to receive a BRAP voucher. People on disability alone receive, on average, around $1,200 per month, which is only a few hundred dollars above poverty level income. You must also provide proof of an application for Section 8 housing and your priority rating, verification of Section 17 eligibility, and documentation of current income sources.

How can you become eligible for BRAP?

Housing Solutions Now rally in Augusta, June 3, 2021. Photo courtesy of Maine Equal Justice FB page.

  • You’re leaving a psychiatric institution
  • You are homeless—as defined by Stewart B. McKinney Homeless Assistance act
  • You live in substandard housing—as defined by HUD
  • You’re leaving a community residential program or behavioral health facility for a more independent living setting

You think that defining homelessness would be simple: whether you are without a home, you have been living on the street or in a shelter, or you have to couch surf for a short period of time. However, it’s far more specific.

How is homelessness defined? Primarily through the Stewart B. McKinney Homeless Assistance Act. It was the first, and remains one of the only, major federal legislative responses to homelessness. First signed into law by Ronald Reagan in 1987, it allows nonprofit organizations to use surplus personal property to assist the homeless and works in conjunction with five individual homeless assistance programs through HUD.

To be “literally homeless” you must be on the street, in a shelter, in a jail, or in a hospital for a certain period of time. You could experience “chronic homelessness,” which means you have documentation of “literal homelessness” for a continuous period of at least 365 days or on at least four separate occasions in the last three years, the combined occasions totaling at least twelve months. In other words, you must accumulate a year’s worth of homelessness to be considered “chronically homeless.” And all this must be documented to prove you are homeless. Then, it must be verified, typed on agency letterhead, stating your current living situation, length of your stay and dates of your homelessness, and include the title of the person completing the verification.

You may also qualify if you are due to be evicted within a week or live in substandard housing which risks your health, safety, or physical well-being due to inoperable plumbing, unsafe electricity, inadequate or unsafe heating, mold, radon, or asbestos. Or if you receive Section 17 Services (community support services, funded through MaineCare, for people who have a neurocognitive disorder), are over the age of eighteen, and at risk for harming yourself or others, etc.

You do not have to qualify for Section 8 housing assistance, only provide proof you have applied. A myriad of reasons that can contribute to your homelessness may disqualify you automatically—having certain felonies uncovered in your background check, being over the median income limit for the region in which you apply, or providing an inaccurate or incomplete application, to name a few— and the waitlists are painfully long.

After jumping through the documentation hoops and endless streams of phone tag with social workers and state agencies, you might finally get a BRAP voucher. However, the most critical part of the process—getting housing—is still an arduous process. You’ll have to find landlords who accept the vouchers and hope that they accept you. Like most voucher programs, there is a time limit on using your BRAP voucher. Thirty days, to be specific, although you can request an extension. Just another stressor to pile onto the heap, right? From that point, you can’t necessarily be choosy, and may find yourself housed in a unit that borders precariously on the definition of substandard housing—bed bugs, hostile neighbors, frequent maintenance issues, and routine visits from police.

You’re also subject to annual recertification reviews and report any income changes. Income includes any type of compensation from work (including tips, bonuses, and overtime) before payroll deductions, Social Security payments, lump sum payments from unemployment, severance pay, child support and alimony, net family assets including trust funds, armed forces income, etc.

Are you exhausted yet?

Although the BRAP voucher is proposed as a pathway to housing for the homeless, the processes for obtaining the voucher and then successfully utilizing it are barriers themselves. Housing should be a right, and low-barrier housing options would allow the homeless to circumvent the arduous red tape marathon that current housing programs are.

For example, Housing First—an alternative policy to transitional and emergency housing programs—asserts that housing is a human right rather than something that is “granted” to the homeless. Instead of having a homeless individual “graduate” from different levels of housing (shelter –> transitional housing –> apartment), Housing First immediately places an individual or household into their own units. Since its implementation through various U.S. housing programs in the late 1980s, Housing First has been instrumental in improving the well-being of our communities. Housing First policies have consistently shown how access to housing improves an individual’s mental health, decreases repeat instances of homelessness, reduces substance use, frees up shelter space and hospital beds, reduces the need for emergency medical services, and costs the public less in taxes.

Existing housing programs in Maine can implement Housing First policies through their own structures. The core components of Housing First policies streamline access to permanent housing by creating practices that prevent lease violations and evictions, give tenants full rights and responsibilities, and offer voluntary supportive services. The moderate success of these programs is a testament to what is possible if we assert that housing is a right and act upon that assertion.

Yet, these types of policies are underutilized in Maine even as the benefits are clear. Meanwhile, rents keep rising, evictions are proceeding, and towns aren’t budging on building new shelters. What gives, Maine?

Seeking a market-rate apartment as a housed individual is, in itself, tedious, taxing, and frankly, depressing. The 2021 housing crisis in Maine is, for some people, their first glimpse into what it’s like to live without housing security. For others, this is an issue they have dealt with for a significant part of their lives. We all benefit from Housing First practices. It’s up to us to demand them.

 

Coral Howe is a member of the Pine and Roses Editorial collective.

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