Cassandra sits in the Kennedy Park gazebo on Nov. 2 and reflects on her life living without housing. Cassandra lived in a tent last winter, with her fiance, who has since passed away. She says that during snowstorms, someone would have to stay awake to keep the tent clear of heavy snow. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal

LEWISTON — Cassandra, who turned 30 years old on Thursday, says she’s been homeless for four years now.

Drug addiction led to her current situation, she said in an interview, describing it as “a nasty, violent cycle.”

Editor’s note: This is the first installment of an occasional series this winter examining homelessness trends in Maine.

The temperature warmed into the 60s on a recent November day when Cassandra (who only offered her first name) spoke as she and her friend tried to stay warm outside at Kennedy Park. Overnight, the temperature dropped below freezing. Both of them commented on how cold it had been just three days earlier, when the mercury dipped to 26 degrees, a harbinger of what’s to come. Her boots looked like they were fairly new and her hoodie was pulled tight over her head and ears, despite the sunshine.

Cassandra and her fiancé spent all of last winter in a tent in the Poland area, with permission from the landowners. “There was ice forming on the inside of our tent and when it would snow, we’d have to sleep in shifts so we could go out and shovel snow off the tent, so it wouldn’t collapse on us.”

“Tell you what,” she continued, “it teaches you a lot about yourself. I learned so much about myself living in a tent.” Sleeping in a tent in winter is one thing when you are hunting or camping for a couple of nights and have the benefit of being able to bring food, drink and enough blankets and fuel to keep you warm. Sleeping in a tent in Maine in the winter because it’s the only option you have is an entirely different scenario.

As temperatures dip below freezing, the estimated number of homeless people in Maine is being reported at its highest point in at least 15 years.


Estimates vary considerably as to how many people are homeless in Maine on a given day, or on average in a given year, and the actual number is considered underreported in all estimates. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development provides an estimate based on a point-in-time count conducted in January, and the count earlier this year estimated 3,455 people were homeless in the state in both shelters and in unsheltered settings. That estimate, which is among the data HUD submits annually to Congress and uses to determine federal funding, increases to about 4,500 if you also consider people identified as being in transitional housing on the night of the count. State and local agencies also use the point-in-time estimate to determine areas of greatest need, inform policy decisions and allocate funding, and drive public awareness.

The 2022 estimate of 3,455 was a two-thirds increase over the 2021 count of 2,063, although officials acknowledge the count is likely higher this year in part because new methodology takes into account people who are also being temporarily housed in hotel rooms. In addition, estimates were likely lower in 2021 because the pandemic led to under-counting of people without any shelter.

The record-setting estimate this year, combined with escalating costs for housing, food and fuel, have officials statewide especially concerned about the vulnerability of many people as harsh weather sets in.

While each day of “unseasonably warm” temperatures in November was a godsend for people like Cassandra who don’t have a regular place to call home, winter’s bite comes quickly. For the growing number of people in Maine who find themselves without a warm, dry and secure place to sleep, the winter is a potentially deadly challenge of wits and skills. It is a real-life battle for survival.

You can see them any day of the week in some of Maine’s downtowns, in parks, off well-worn paths to the local rivers. Others don’t want to be seen and keep their distance. They congregate in some spots because there is strength in numbers, a level of familiarity and comfort from the camaraderie of people who don’t judge each other and many times who help each other out.

Where do homeless people go in winter and how do they survive? There is no one answer as the local landscape shifts for providing shelter and assistance to them.


Katie Spencer White, co-chairperson of the Statewide Homeless Council, which is an advisory council charged with providing leadership to end homelessness in Maine, said more people nowadays are vulnerable and at risk of being unhoused due to the lack of available housing across the state. And, driven by supply-and-demand, hugely escalating costs for what little housing is available has created a “desperately unhealthy rental market.” Those escalating costs have since been joined by the rising cost of fuel for heat.

White, who is also chief executive officer of Mid-Maine Homeless Shelter & Services in Waterville, said the statewide vacancy rate — a measure of how much rental housing is unoccupied — is 2.5%, while a “healthy” vacancy rate would be between 5% and 8%. Pre-pandemic, the rate was around 5%.

She said the Waterville shelter isn’t necessarily serving more people, but is seeing more older adults and disabled people who are unable to find housing as rents increased an average of 11% this year, she said.

“We’re not necessarily seeing more people experience literal homelessness, but we are seeing a lot more people who are housing vulnerable, fuel vulnerable,” White said. “That’s where diversion becomes critical.”


In Maine, the choices for people without housing are few. Some couch surf — a night here, two nights there, until they eventually get put out on the street again. Some will get into a shelter temporarily, but the numbers are small, primarily because there are not enough shelter beds here. Shelters also have rules and requirements that many homeless people don’t want to follow and shelters can be noisy and most don’t allow pets. Lack of affordable housing is cited by many as the biggest driver of homelessness in Maine.

Anecdotally, evidence suggests there is a very small number of homeless people who are constantly on the go and do travel south to warmer climates in the winter, but the vast majority stay put. It costs money to get on a bus, and why go where you don’t know anyone or know where to sleep, get shelter, food or almost anything else.


According to data provided by Shawn McFarland, a case manager with the Maine Department of Health and Human Services, 1,074 shelter beds exist in 45 shelters statewide. Of those, 972 beds at 38 shelters are funded through MaineHousing, using federal and state funds. One shelter with 14 beds is for veterans and uses other federal funding. The remaining beds and shelters are privately funded and operated.

Homeless people gather Tuesday beneath the World War I statue on Memorial Circle in Augusta. Andy Molloy/Kennebec Journal

The city of Lewiston has 83 shelter beds in four privately run shelters and five emergency overnight shelters. The regular shelters are between 88%-91% full year-round, according to the final report submitted by the mayor’s ad hoc shelter committee. Auburn’s zoning, citywide, does not allow overnight homeless shelters, except for survivors of domestic abuse and human trafficking, for which some beds are available.

In October, Lewiston city officials Friday began working to disperse homeless encampments in response to concerns from public or private property owners. In recent months, encampments of unhoused people were subject to enforcement action in both Lewiston and Auburn, leading some advocates and officials to call for alternate solutions that can house more people before winter.

A proposal put forward in October to purchase and erect 24 Pallet modular shelters as part of a temporary winter housing plan is at a standstill. Lewiston, Auburn and Androscoggin County governments have so far been unable to agree on funding for the project and location for the shelter village. The Androscoggin County Commission approved allocating $520,000 to purchase the modular units, leaving roughly $1 million in other costs to be funded by the Twin Cities. City officials on both sides were quick to say it wasn’t enough.

Lewiston Mayor Carl L. Sheline said in a statement Friday he still thinks it’s imperative the city does “something meaningful to help provide shelter for our unhoused residents during these upcoming months.”

“I will also continue to advocate for our downtown building owners and businesses who face daily challenges dealing with homelessness in our city,” Sheline said. “We really need to act soon.”


The vast majority of homeless people in Lewiston-Auburn are left to fend for themselves, which means seeking shelter in parks, woods, underpasses, stair wells, decks, abandoned vehicles, sheds or almost anything within walking distance if services. Regardless of where they are outside, they run the risk of hypothermia, which can lead to death. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, advanced age, chronic medical conditions, substance abuse and homelessness are among risk factors for hypothermia-related death.

Frostbite is also a very real threat to anyone outdoors in the winter, but homeless people tend to have insufficient winter clothing and have to constantly battle wet socks, boots and gloves. Wind, snow and ice are all enemies for people without housing.


To escape winter’s elements, some will seek refuge in the few homeless shelters in central Maine.

In Augusta, the Bread of Life Ministries family homeless shelter has 44 beds, which are nearly always full or close to full, as well as a 14-bed shelter for homeless veterans. Because children are housed there, the family shelter doesn’t allow people who are intoxicated or under the influence of drugs, or sex offenders, and they screen for criminal records, allowing some with criminal records to stay but not others with more severe or violent incidents in their criminal history. The family shelter opened in 1986 and expanded from 26 beds in 2019.

People who stay there are offered case management, guidance finding help for addiction and mental illness, and are expected to form a plan to address the reasons they ended up homeless, so they can improve their lives and move on.

Victoria Abbott, executive director of Bread of Life Ministries, said there is no maximum length of stay at the shelter, as long as clients housed there stick to their plans of care.


“We care about the people you don’t see and don’t know they’re there,” Abbott said of their mission to help unhoused people. “A soft place to land that’s welcoming and, if you’re willing to work through what you need to work through, we’re willing to give you what you need.”

She said the waiting list for federal housing vouchers used to take about two years, and now it takes four or more years. And many people with vouchers are unable to use them, because there are so few affordable apartments and other housing available.

The organization also has 83 units of transitional housing where formerly unhoused people can move from the shelter as they make progress on their plans to escape homelessness. The organization also runs a soup kitchen that feeds around 80 people a day in downtown Augusta, and owns market-rate rental housing units in central Maine as well.

People wait Wednesday in a downpour for shelter inside the South Parish Congregational Church in Augusta. The church has furnished 25 spots for homeless people to sleep. Andy Molloy/Kennebec Journal

Bread of Life officials also hope to open, likely next year, Art’s House, on a currently vacant property in Augusta. It would be a “lower barrier” overnight shelter that would start with eight beds, with space to add more later.

In Waterville, Mid-Maine Homeless Shelter & Services operates a 48-bed, low-barrier shelter that officials said is usually full, and a walk-in winter warming center that serves between 10 and 13 people a night, both at their Colby Street facility, making it a roughly 60-bed low-barrier shelter, one of the largest in the state.

It also has a diversion program, which officials said has served more than 100 households. The program helps people at risk of losing their housing for a variety of reasons — including loss or reduction of income and increasing housing costs — stay in their current housing or find new housing.


And after two years of planning, a new facility aimed at helping unhoused people opened Nov. 1 in a section of the South Parish Congregational Church’s Augusta property. The Augusta Overnight Emergency Warming Center, with 20 authorized beds, is open from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. every day, and officials there said they’ve already had at least one night where they exceeded that capacity. They’re seeking funding to hire more staff so they can increase their capacity.

“It’s not even the dead of winter and we’re already past our capacity of 20,” said Julia Stone, director of the emergency overnight shelter. “I imagine as it gets colder, we’ll get more. Our hope is to not have to turn anybody away, but it becomes a dilemma with staffing. We can’t hire anyone else now until we get more funding.”

Sarah Miller, executive director of Bridging the Gap, a nonprofit group that runs a daytime winter warming center in Augusta, said the best they could offer people with no place to go on some cold nights last winter was a tent and some blankets. Miller has led a group that’s opened a new Augusta overnight shelter that is low-barrier, meaning it accepts unhoused people who might be turned away at other area overnight shelters for reasons including that they are under the influence of substances, on the sex offender registry, or have mental health problems. People will be able to stay the night, as long as they are not disruptive.

No children are allowed to stay at the warming center, but officials said families that show up there with children will be assisted in finding somewhere to go.


Cassandra, the 30-year-old who was hanging out in Lewiston’s Kennedy Park, said she and her fiancé built a hallway off the front of their tent “so that we had a door that shut, and it was a tarp room almost like a mud room.”

“We ran out of fuel and the way we kept warm was with propane heaters. There were times when I didn’t think we were going to wake up in the morning,” she said, referring to the possibility they’d freeze to death.


A small grouping of tents in a Lewiston homeless encampment is waterlogged and abandoned on Nov. 11 in advance of a police order to vacate. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal

Refilling a 20-pound propane tank, Cassandra said, costs about $22, but if you don’t have an extra tank to do an exchange, it can cost $40 to $50. Money is always an issue when you’re homeless and Cassandra put a post on social media in an appeal for help. An old friend of Jeff’s, who was her fiancé, saw the post. “He remembered him from high school,” she recalled, “and how nice he always was. He filled all three of our (propane) tanks and bought us food — he spent over $140 on us . . . because he remembered what kind of person Jeff was.”

Jeff died in August. Just talking about his death made Cassandra visibly upset. They had been friends for 13 years and engaged for two. But Cassandra gets right back on track, adding, “What made it work is that both of us put in the same amount of work choosing our home together. It was only a tent, but it was ours.”

Her fiancé is gone, the tent, car and all their belongings taken when they were told they couldn’t come back to the property toward the end of winter last year. “Since my fiancé died, people that I thought were my best friends, people that I have housed, clothed, fed, given everything I had to and they literally were . . . slamming doors in my face. I now own nothing of his,” she said with an air of finality.

What will she do this winter; where will she go? She says she doesn’t know yet. “I really don’t want to be in a tent again.”

Nowadays, Cassandra and her friend try not to sleep in the same place twice and say they “sleep walk” a lot to get through the nights and sleep during the day, if they can.

“There’s such a dire homeless problem,” Cassandra said. “Like growing up I never, ever seen this many people sleeping outside, ever.”



The reasons for homelessness vary from person to person and not everyone fits into the same category. They include: drug addiction, mental health issues, domestic violence, post traumatic stress disorder, loss of a job and a health crisis, to name a few key catalysts.

Emerging from one of his “cubby holes” Wednesday morning, Nov. 16, Patrick Crocker, who is homeless, walks down Lisbon Street in Lewiston where he was heading to the public library to warm up. “I’m on Social Security but it’s not enough to get me a place to stay these days,” he said, as he waited for the library doors to open. Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal

“The hardest thing about homelessness is how much planning and mental energy it takes to do the simplest things.” That is just one of the statements attributed to homeless individuals about their experience of being homeless, as reported in the Lewiston mayoral ad hoc committee’s final report on homelessness.

The report notes that the “visibly homeless represent a very small percentage of the overall homeless population,” and that people who are “invisible to most neighbors” include those who are doubled-up on rental housing, couch-surfing or in temporary shelters or hotel rooms, among others.

Will, who only offered his first name in an interview, is among the fortunate unhoused people in the area to have a room at a local hotel, secured through his case manager at Gateway Community Services. He became homeless after the house he was living in was sold. He found a room in a rooming house, but lost it after falling sick and ending up in the intensive care unit of a local hospital for six weeks. A friend who had promised to take care of his room used it instead as a flophouse, which Will says got him kicked out.

Glenn Norraik keeps warm in the entryway of a business Wednesday, Nov. 16, in downtown Lewiston after spending a cold and snowy night on the streets. “I got kicked out of my place in Norway and can’t get into no shelters because I don’t have an ID. I just move from place to place. It sucks,” he said, pulling the blanket up to his chin as the wind began to blow a cold mist on him. Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal

He’s been working the same job for two years and says he makes good money. He pays child support for his son, which makes it tougher to find an affordable place to live, but he says he’s trying to save enough money while he’s in the hotel to get his own place. Will spent part of last winter outside living in a tent as well. He said he used candles in clay pots to try to keep warm.

Will has struggled with drug addiction. He says he’s been sober for three months now. “Each day I find new reasons to stay sober,” he said. “It’s hard being homeless and staying sober though, ’cause for me, I really just wanted to numb the pain, and using made me able to feel OK with my living situation.”

Abbott, the Bread of Life Ministries executive director in Augusta, said many people don’t examine the root of the problems that lead to homelessness.

“Cycles of addiction, poverty, (are) leading to homelessness. Trauma is at the root of it,” Abbott said. “You need to get through that trauma, and get over that addiction.”

Kennebec Journal staff writer Keith Edwards and Sun Journal staff writer Emily Bader contributed reporting. 

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