On Wednesday, Phil Allen, who is the veterans housing service manager for the Portland-based Preble Street Resource Center, discovered a man who had been living in his car for the past four months.

The man wasn’t found in Portland.

He was found in Oxford Hills as Allen and dozens of other social workers and housing advocates scoured towns across Maine to count the number of homeless people living here.

Found Wednesday, but living in his car for the past 120-some days, means this man endured weeks and weeks of near-zero temperatures both day and night. There is no way a person can stay warm under those conditions.

Before Allen found the man Wednesday, did anyone else see him?

Perhaps. But, even if someone did and they tried to help, the fact remains that this man — for whatever reason — has no place to live other than in a car.

Unlike more urban states, and warmer states, we don’t see large groups of homeless people gathered outside in common areas in Maine. It’s rare to even see a single homeless person sleeping on a city sidewalk or park bench in the dark and cold of winter.

Just because we don’t see obvious homelessness doesn’t mean it isn’t happening.

Last year, during a similar homeless count, 76 people were identified in Franklin, Oxford and Androscoggin counties. When you consider there are more than 190,000 people living in this tri-county area, 76 is a small number.

That is, unless you’re one of the 76.

According to a November report in the Bangor Daily News, homelessness across the country is decreasing. But, in Maine, it is on the rise.

Maine’s homeless count in 2012 was 2,393. Last year, it was 3,016.

According to the BDN report, homelessness has increased 14 percent since 2007 in Maine. Elsewhere across the country it has droppedby  9 percent.

That’s quite a growing gap.

The National Coalition for the Homeless, which tracks demographics and works to reduce the homeless rate, can’t say for sure exactly how many Americans are homeless because the number is impossible to count. For every person found living in a car or counted among those sleeping in shelters, others living (and hiding) in abandoned buildings are never discovered.

According to the Council for Affordable and Rural Housing, 9 percent of this country’s estimated 1.7 million homeless are living in rural areas, including Maine. They live with friends, stay overnight in shelters and, when it’s warmer, camp outside.

Or, like the man in Oxford Hills, burrow inside a car.

The National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty paints a dreary statistical picture of the homeless.

The average monthly income is $348. Nearly one-third of all homeless don’t get enough to eat, and two-thirds struggle with alcohol, drug abuse or mental illness.

Of the single women who are homeless, 22 percent say they fled abusive relationships. And, among that same group of women, 25 percent report being abused once they were on the street.

In a National Law Center survey last year, 46 percent of public officials surveyed identified domestic violence as the primary cause of homelessness in their cities. Think of the desperation and mistrust people must develop when running from domestic violence, only to be confronted by more violence on the street.

Among the homeless, 36 percent are families with children, many forced out by foreclosures. So, while parents struggle with domestic violence, financial strain, alcohol, drug abuse, mental illness or other factors that drove them from their homes, the children are dragged along. They’re anxious, hungry, cold and unable to regularly attend school.

That’s no life for thousands of children who live in a country of prosperity.

The United States Conference of Mayors suggests that more housing, including housing specific for people with disabilities, and more job opportunities will go a long way toward reducing homelessness.

The New York-based Coalition for the Homeless is more focused on affordable housing and reducing what it calls a widening housing affordability gap across the country.

It would be nice to think that if enough housing were available for everybody, we’d be all set, but the reality is that not everyone can afford or will ever be able to afford a reasonable rent because of emotional or physical disabilities, or because they have no financial resources after fleeing from an abuser. So, it will take a commitment by the public and its money to create housing and/or subsidize low-income renters.

This morning in the United States, as 312 million of us rose from bed looking for breakfast, 1.7 million others — the combined populations of Rhode Island and Vermont — started their day hungry, homeless and scared. And, by tonight, they will still be looking for a warm, safe place to sleep.

That’s a national disgrace. And, certainly, not the way life should be.

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The opinions expressed in this column reflect the views of the ownership and the editorial board.


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