Maine becomes leader in protecting homeless


AUGUSTA (AP) – In a rare bill signing outside of the State House, Gov. John Baldacci went to a homeless shelter in Portland on Thursday and put his signature on legislation he said makes Maine a leader in protecting the homeless.

In a ceremony at the Preble Street Resource Center in Portland, Baldacci signed a bill to ensure that attacks on the homeless are prosecuted just as severely as attacks on people because of their age, race or sexual orientation. “We in Maine need to make sure that all of Maine’s citizens who are homeless are not living in fear on the streets,” Baldacci said. “I am signing this legislation and once again putting Maine on the map as a leader.”

Nearly all bill signings take place in the State House, but Baldacci decided to go to a shelter about 60 miles south in Maine’s largest city so he could be with the people helped by the bill and the advocates who help them, administration officials said.

“It’s not every day you get a bill signing in your soup kitchen,” said Mark Swann, executive director of the Preble Street shelter, where about 60 people turned out for Thursday’s bill signing. “As far as we know, there’s been nothing else like this (legislation) in the rest of the nation.”

The legislation was signed as violence against homeless people prompts other states to consider similar laws.

In Florida, teenagers were caught on videotape earlier this year beating a homeless man, prompting a bill in that state that could increase the penalties for those who attack people living on the street. The legislation had yet to reach the House or Senate for debate by Thursday.

A bill also was being considered in Maryland that would protect the homeless under the state’s hate crimes law just as racial and ethnic minorities are already protected. According to the National Coalition for the Homeless, assaults targeting the homeless have risen dramatically since 2002 across the country. In 2005, 73 homeless people were assaulted and 13 died, the report said.

Although Maine social service agencies have done well dealing with homelessness, work still needs to be done, Maine’s Democratic governor said. During the past decade, homeless bed nights in Maine have more than doubled to more than 200,000, a trend Baldacci labeled as unacceptable.

Problems associated with homelessness gained an even higher profile in Maine earlier this year with the horrifying death of a homeless man whose body burned under a bridge where homeless people congregated in Bangor.

Police are not sure whether the death of the 34-year-old victim, who had been staying at a Bangor homeless shelter and living on the street, was a homicide, suicide or an accident.

During his bill signing Thursday, the governor applauded the Preble Street facility’s assistance in building 30 additional supportive housing units.

The nonprofit Avesta Housing developed the efficiency apartment complex and services are provided by Preble Street. Funding came from several sources of grants, including the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.