Terry Walters, right, walks down the hallway Feb. 2 with a friend on the way to her apartment at Huston Commons in Portland. She lived on the streets and in the woods for nearly 10 years before she got an apartment in 2017. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal

Editor’s note: This is the fifth and final installment of an occasional series examining homelessness in Maine.

The problem of homelessness is a shared one across the state of Maine, confounding municipal and state leaders in search of solutions. While there has been some significant progress within the legislative and executive branches in recent months, coupled with a heightened awareness of the complexities of homelessness, the social problem has polarized some communities and united others.

According to the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development’s 2022 Homeless Assessment Report, most states saw their homeless populations rise between 2019 and 2022. Maine is one of four states where the number of homeless more than doubled in that period. The report is only one gauge of the extent of homelessness.

A common perception held by many is that the solution to homelessness is simply more affordable housing. While more affordable housing is part of the equation, the people who work with the homeless or who are connected to the homeless service infrastructure will tell you that solving homelessness requires a broader approach.

Mark Swann is the executive director of Preble Street in Portland, the most experienced, well-funded — up to 70% from fundraising efforts — and arguably the most successful nonprofit agency in Maine tackling homelessness, poverty and hunger.

“The complexity of homelessness is often lost on people. It’s not just housing or a certain kind of housing that’s going to solve everything,” he said. “It’s not just this service or this intervention or this new program or this shiny new effort that somebody’s come up with. Or, it’s not data collection. It’s a lot of things.”


Mark Swann, the executive director of Preble Street Resource Center, speaks Feb. 2 with the Sun Journal about his organization’s efforts to work with the chronically homeless. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal

Swann started his work with Preble Street 32 years ago and he says a lot of the homeless equation has changed, especially since the opioid crisis exploded. “The first 25 years of my job here, we didn’t have one single overdose, ever, anywhere, in any of our programs,” Swann recounted. “Then starting about six years ago, we had one and then another, then several more and at one point we were seeing one overdose every nine days — and that’s just in Preble Street programs and facilities.”


Preble Street works closely with Avesta Housing, which has built, owns and operates three Housing First apartment complexes in Portland: Logan Place, Florence House and Huston Commons. All three are focused on the chronically homeless — defined by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development as a person having a disability who has been homeless 12 months or on at least four separate occasions in the past three years. Preble Street provides 24-hour on-site staffing for support services for tenants — including social work.

Tenants pay 30% of their income toward rent, while HUD funds cover the balance. Portland Housing Authority provides project-based rental assistance. Not every tenant has an income.

Housing First’s approach is to quickly place homeless individuals in permanent housing without preconditions or barriers to entry — no requirements that they be sober, get treatment or receive services.

“I consider the biggest success in my time at Preble Street unquestioningly is March 23, 2005 — the night we opened Logan Place,” Swann stated emphatically, adding, “The biggest failure of this agency in my time here is that we have not been able to replicate that model in any way, shape or form here in Maine.”

Greg Payne is the senior adviser on housing policy to Gov. Janet Mills. “If this is so successful on a human level,” he said, “so successful at a public cost level, why in the world would we not focus our attention on how to replicate it? And so that’s where we are now.”


A recent study found that Housing First programs decreased homelessness by 88% and improved housing stability by 41%, compared to Treatment First programs.

Jack Tsai, campus dean and professor at the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston, writing in the American Journal of Public Health in 2020 stated, “Studies have found that Housing First results in greater improvements in housing outcomes for homeless adults in North America. Housing First may lead to greater reductions in inpatient and emergency health care services but may have limited effects on clinical and social outcomes.”

On April 12, Jeff Olivet, executive director of the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness, spoke at the quarterly update on Housing First, hosted by HUD. Olivet’s agency is the only federal agency with the sole mission of preventing and ending homelessness in America. Olivet has worked in the homeless field since the 1990s, starting as an outreach worker and later as a housing case manager. He is a strong advocate of the Housing First model but, he said, it is not 100% effective.

“We know that Housing First is not a panacea. Housing First was designed to end homelessness at the individual level — not to solve the structural causes of homelessness, such as the severe lack of affordable housing, ongoing impacts of structural racism, and lack of access to mental health care and drug and alcohol treatment on demand. Blaming Housing First for the ongoing homelessness crisis is like blaming cancer treatments for cancer. It doesn’t cure every person, and we have much more to learn, but we are saving lives on a daily basis.”

The day after his interview with the Sun Journal, Swann testified before the Maine Legislature’s Committee on Housing, which is looking into funding to address homelessness, among other things. Last week, the committee recommended passage of L.D. 2, sponsored by House Speaker Rachel Talbot Ross, D-Portland, which would identify a funding mechanism by establishing a Housing First Fund within the Maine Department of Health and Human Services. It would be funded by taking 50% of the state’s real estate transfer tax — about $13 million a year — which currently goes into the General Fund. MaineHousing would administer technical assistance for the development of more housing consistent with the program.

Calling Housing First the most effective solution to chronic homelessness, Swann reacted to the advancement of L.D. 2. by saying, “The Housing Committee promised to tackle the urgent situation facing people who are unhoused, and this historic legislation will do just that. We are thankful for Speaker Talbot Ross’s leadership and very hopeful that L.D. 2 will move quickly through the full Legislature and that Gov. Mills will sign this into law. With more site-based Housing First programs established across Maine. Maine has a true opportunity to end chronic homelessness.”


Terry Walters, left, chats Feb. 2 with Brittney Dunham, senior director of social work, in the hallway of Huston Commons, a residential property serviced by Preble Street to house previously chronically homeless individuals. Walters has been living in the apartment since it opened and though she says she is anti-social, she organizes many group activities on her floor. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal


At 63, Terry Walters was one of the original tenants of Huston Commons when it opened in 2017. Originally from Buffalo, New York, she moved to Portland in 2006 to be closer to her son, who worked at DiMillo’s on the Water. She lived in her car and camped in the woods with her ex-husband off and on for nearly 10 years.

Walters is grateful to have a home once again, after years of being homeless, struggling with addiction and bipolar disorder. “You can’t starve here. You can’t freeze here. There’s always somebody to talk to and it’s got every connection you can use for mental health, for physical health.”

As Walters points out, it’s up to the individual whether they want to use the resources Preble Street offers. “I try to use every resource that’s here because I know it’s going to benefit me,” she said. She’s already had one knee surgery — something that would never have happened if she were still homeless — and her dream is to save up enough money to buy a car.

“I’m happy here, I could die here. I have a cat and everything I need.”

Says Swann of Preble Street’s philosophy, “It’s about building relationships, helping people help themselves through finding housing, a lot of case work approach to help people navigate the system, get what they need.”

Brittney Dunham is senior director of social work at Preble Street and works every day with people who have been homeless, have mental health issues, disabilities and substance-use issues. She and her colleagues are the glue that holds things together.


“The 24-hour support services … for people who have experienced homelessness for so long, for some subset of those folks is critical,” she said. “And that’s what we’re doing here.”

“I think from our vantage point, we see Huston Commons and Florence House and Logan Place as incredibly successful,” Payne said. “The question then becomes ‘Why aren’t there more of them?'”

He answers the question, saying money is needed to build housing, provide rental assistance to help new residents on fixed incomes pay their bills and pay for the 24-hour services, which is the hardest component of the three to accomplish.

Payne explained that funding the 24-hour services at all three housing units has been a mixture of one-time funding opportunities and some constant innovative financing by Preble Street.


One year ago, the state adopted a new statewide strategy to reduce and ultimately end homelessness. MaineHousing — an independent state authority created in 1969 to address the problems of unsafe, unsuitable, overcrowded, and unaffordable housing — is a key player in the state’s effort to end homelessness, working with the governor’s office, lawmakers and the state Department of Health and Human Services.

“I think the perception is that nothing’s happening,” said Dan Brennan, MaineHousing’s director. “Well, I think there’s a lot happening, but we still have a long way to go.” Brennan has worked in senior positions at MaineHousing for 30 years and he diplomatically describes the state’s homeless situation as “challenging,” adding that the COVID-19 pandemic didn’t help.


“It exacerbated what we already knew,” he said. “But one of the things that it really did — it triggered us to say, you know, we have to go about this differently.”

After a two-year analysis, MaineHousing transitioned from working with the Corporation for Supportive Housing to working with Community Solutions, a nonprofit organization that uses an approach called Built for Zero to measurably end homelessness. More than 100 communities around the country have signed on to this approach and have had success taking chronically homeless people and homeless veterans out of the homeless loop, at considerable savings, freeing up shelter beds and supportive resources.

Maine is the second state to adopt the Built for Zero approach.

The redesigned statewide response system for homelessness puts in place nine regional hubs, with a coordinator for each region. They are contractors to better coordinate services and understand the needs and extent of homelessness in each region.

The Built for Zero methodology uses a milestone to gauge its effectiveness called Functional Zero, when a community reaches the point where homelessness is rare and brief. To get to that point, communities create a by-name list of all the people in the community experiencing homelessness.

Rather than depend on a once-a-year self-reporting survey on the homeless, the by-name list encourages the more personal approach of knowing who the homeless are in a particular community. The list is compiled with the permission of the homeless and includes their name, homeless history, health and housing needs and is updated at least monthly.


Maintaining a by-name list allows each community to have a detailed, current set of data on every homeless person in a population.

Dan Brennan is the director of MaineHousing. Submitted photo

MaineHousing’s Brennan said a silver lining to the pandemic was a historic shift in investment in housing at the federal level and Congress making significant changes to the federal low-income housing tax credit program, which benefited Maine. Now, Brennan said, the pressure is on to pass the Affordable Housing Credit Improvement Act, which is expected to be introduced to Congress soon, according to Jennifer Schwartz, the director of Tax and Housing Advocacy with the National Council of State Housing Agencies. Housing advocates will be watching the debt ceiling negotiations carefully to see if proposed funding stays intact, although the group does not expect a direct impact on the bill from the debt-limit negotiations.

Maine Gov. Janet Mills put $30 million into her biennial budget for affordable housing, the kind of investment in housing that Brennan said needs to be sustained for the long term if Maine is to make a dent in the housing crunch.

MaineHousing has 3,500 units in the pipeline, but as many as 20,000 are needed, according to the National Low Income Housing Coalition.

“I don’t spend a lot of time trying to count what we need,” Brennan said. “I’m trying to focus in on what we can produce. What I know we’ve been producing with previous investments is 250 units a year.” He said 900 units are under construction now, but construction delays are pushing back completion dates.

On Tuesday, May 9, Raise-Op housing cooperative is planning a ribbon-cutting at one of the two new affordable housing developments in Lewiston at Blake and Walnut streets, which will have 18 one-, two- and four-bedroom units. The same day, a ribbon-cutting is planned for a new 55-unit building for older Mainers (55 and up) in Old Orchard Beach, with more MaineHousing projects coming online in the next few months.


Brennan said he would like to push for a goal of up to 1,000 housing units a year in order to make a significant difference in the housing situation. Private investment in multiple housing units is up after years of little to no activity following the 2010 recession. It’s not all affordable or low-income housing, necessarily, but Brennan acknowledged that Maine needs all types of housing right now.

“I’m an optimist,” he said. “I think that if you keep working at something, keep working at something, then it will get better.”

In January, MaineHousing received $21 million from the Legislature, part of a $473 million emergency energy relief bill, to provide overnight warming shelters and long-term homeless shelters across the state.

In February, $1 million was awarded to 13 overnight warming shelters across the state. In late March, MaineHousing awarded $16.3 million in state grant funding for 17 housing and shelter projects across the state to support housing and shelter for more than 500 Mainers. More than 35 organizations applied for the funding. The remaining funds paid for continued hotel stays for people experiencing homelessness and hotel rooms for shelter overflows during the winter, according to MaineHousing.

The two largest awards, $4 million and $3.7 million, went to Portland and Lewiston, respectively, for shelters. The funding in Portland is for a 280-bed shelter, while Lewiston will establish its first publicly funded shelter, now proposed to have 37 beds and 24/7 support services. That proposal has been approved by the Lewiston Planning Board but must still be voted on by the City Council before it can move forward.


There’s a community about a 20-minute drive from downtown Austin, Texas, called Community First! Village that is taking a unique approach to solving homelessness. Not only is it working, it’s growing. Among the unique aspects of the expanding community is that it has been funded almost entirely by private donations.


Aerial view of Community First! Village near Austin, Texas.  Submitted photo

What started out as one used recreational vehicle to house one individual grew into what is currently a 51-acre planned community, designed and built specifically for men and women coming out of chronic homelessness. It is a blend of RVs, mobile homes and micro homes.

When Phase II of the project is completed later this year, it will have 500 homes, most of which are 200 to 400 square feet in size. Two additional phases of expansion are set to begin in the next few months, adding another 51-acre tract of land across the street from the original Community First! Village and a 76-acre tract in another location. Combined, they would become home to an additional 1,400 or more formerly chronically homeless people.

It was started by Alan Graham, who founded the social outreach ministry Mobile Loaves & Fishes in Austin. Prior to that, Graham was a real estate investor and developer. The community he has created — and its success —speaks for itself, as other organizations have used the Community First! model to tackle homelessness in their communities.

For 20 years, Graham has funded his nonprofit organization with donations, including the land. Last year, his group embarked on an ambitious capital campaign to raise $150 million to fund the next phases of expansion. It has already raised $136 million. In January, Travis County committed $35 million in American Rescue Plan Act funds to help pay for the construction of 640 micro homes, the first public funding ever.

The leadership team at Community First! Village would say there is not another development like this, on this scale, anywhere else in the country.

Kitchen crew preparing a meal at Community First! Village near Austin, Texas. Submitted photo

What is key to this and other successful rehousing efforts is the full slate of supportive services offered to the residents from the outset, including full-time behavioral health case managers, health care, addiction recovery and support services.


Community First! Village was developed with an approach similar to the Housing First model, which believes an individual must first be adequately housed before important lifesaving services such as drug and alcohol rehabilitation would be effective.

Graham strongly believes that the single greatest cause of homelessness is a profound, catastrophic loss of family. He also believes reestablishing a one-on-one relationship with each person is key to reviving their self-worth, restoring their confidence and desire to live a full and productive life.

Since taking in its first residents in 2015, Community First! Village has seen a retention rate of 85%. Retention rate is seen as a key metric of success by the administrators of the community and its programs.

Four hundred formerly chronic homeless residents live in Community First! Village, a 51-acre planned community near Austin, Texas. Submitted photo

According to Mobile Loaves & Fishes, its housing costs one-quarter to one-third of traditional subsidized high-rise structures.

In addition to the homes, the community has outdoor kitchens, a market, art house, cinema, an organic farm, walking trails, laundry/restroom/shower facilities, an inn and a health resource center and is serviced by Austin public transit.

It should be clearly stated that what works for one community may not work for another. Homeless advocates emphasize there is no one-size-fits-all when it comes to housing.


The documentary on Community First! Village offers a good feel for what goes on there and how the community works. The trailer is available free on YouTube.

There are two other efforts to address homelessness and affordable housing in the nation that are noteworthy.

The Trinity Project in Missoula, Montana, is coming online this year. It’s a collaborative effort by the local housing authority, a developer and a nonprofit focused on providing sustainable-built, affordable homes.

Two apartment complexes on different sites are in the final phase of construction and leasing, offering a total of 202 units. One has 72 units that are two-, three- and four-bedroom apartments that are rent restricted — meaning they are available to people earning between $12 and $20 per hour, depending on family size.

The second location has 100 workforce affordable apartments, based again on income and household size — for individuals and families living below 70% of the area median income, which is below $41,000 a year for a family of two. Thirty units are permanent, supportive housing for the chronically homeless, complete with onsite, 24-hour supportive services.

Land for one of the complexes was donated by the county, the other was a former trailer park that was acquired by the nonprofit.


Rockford, Illinois, became the first city in the nation to get homeless veterans off the streets in 2015, attaining functional zero, a key element of the Built for Zero methodology, meaning there were fewer veterans experiencing homelessness than could be housed within one month. Two years later, the city achieved the same functional zero milestone for the chronically homeless. The city joined the Built for Zero approach started by Community Solutions in 2015.


Maine’s largest cities face the greatest pressure to find answers to the homeless problem. To that end, at least three cities in Maine were considering another option for temporary housing called Pallet shelters.

Augusta, Auburn and Bangor were all considering the shelters, made from prefabricated panels of fiberglass-reinforced plastic with a foam insulating core and an aluminum frame. The 100-square-foot structures can be erected in a matter of days and are usually grouped like a small community, complete with supportive services.

There are two such villages in New England, in Boston and Burlington, Vermont, and others in a number of communities across the country. After weeks of back-and-forth discussions, Auburn, Lewiston and Androscoggin County could not agree on funding or a site location. Leaders in Augusta decided not to go with the Pallet shelters after discovering the shelter roofs could not handle the weight of Maine snow.

Portland, as Maine’s largest city, has the largest homelessness problem, and the city has been dealing with it the longest. Lewiston’s problem is more recent and smaller, but the rise of its homeless population in recent years has strained both services and the patience of residents and business owners, particularly in the city’s core.

No city in Maine is considering a Community First! Village approach. But the millions of dollars available for new shelters in the state, and the hundreds of new, affordable housing units expected to come online in the next few years and beyond, with some of them offering support services, has housing advocates optimistic about the future.

“It seems to me it is within our reach to end chronic homelessness in Maine,” said Payne, with the governor’s office. “And I don’t know that other states can say that. But I think we have an opportunity in front of us to maybe pull that off and I think we have the political will on both sides of the aisle to make it happen.”

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