In her budget address last month, Gov. Janet Mills spoke about Maine’s affordability crisis and officially backed a policy of housing first, an approach advocates say can help address chronic homelessness.
But what does housing first mean in practice?
At its core, Mark Swann, executive director of the social service group Preble Street, said the concept is a simple one.
“It’s about providing the housing … without layering in lots of preconditions,” he said.
Shelter providers and social service organizations have often used a “housing ready” model for addressing homelessness, Swann said. Under that approach, groups help people navigate the system, but only put them in housing after they’ve met certain conditions. Such stipulations can include staying sober or gaining employment.
Swann said that approach works for some people. However, he said a segment of the unhoused population is chronically homeless and struggles to meet those preconditions.
As a result, Swann said Preble Street eventually decided to pursue a different approach, opening a housing first complex called Logan Place in Portland in 2005 and later adding two additional sites: Florence House and Huston Commons. These are places where chronically homeless people are provided housing as well as around-the-clock access to services to help them stay sheltered and address any additional needs they might have. Swann said those in the housing first units are tenants and are typically expected to pay about a third of their income toward rent. However, if someone isn’t making any money, they are not required to pay to stay in a home.
The approach has worked well in the places it’s been tried in Maine, Swann said, noting that many people who have been homeless for years have finally gotten access to permanent and supportive housing.
“The practice does show that once people are in housing and they’re safe and they’re stable, over time — sometimes sooner, sometimes later — they then start to work on some of those same issues we’ve been hoping and praying on in the housing ready model,” he said. “In other words, they start to get health care, they may enroll in the behavioral health care systems, they may try sobriety, educational occupation goals, and also reconnect with family.”
At the national level, the efficacy of housing first programs is backed up by myriad studies, including one from 2021 that found the policy decreased homelessness by 88% and bolstered housing stability by 41% compared to more traditional programs. Furthermore, an independent panel of public health experts appointed by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has recommended the use of housing first programs to combat homelessness.
What’s being proposed in Maine?
Maine already has several housing first programs, with the three sites created through a partnership between Preble Street and Avesta Housing along with a site-based housing first complex operated by Mid-Maine Homeless Shelter, Swann said. He said there are also some “scatter-based” services in which groups work with individual landlords to get people into homes, although that model doesn’t typically come with the 24/7 services available through the site-based approach.
But given that Maine’s annual point-in-time count — a snapshot of homelessness on one day of the year — found 4,441 people were unhoused in January of 2022, Swann said there is a need for more funding to expand housing first options. That’s why he was thrilled to hear Mills specifically back the policy in her state of the budget address, with the governor saying such an approach would provide “communities across Maine with a desperately needed resource to address chronic homelessness and reduce health care and public safety costs.”
Rep. Drew Gattine and Swann said the governor was referencing a bill the Westbrook Democrat has been working on with Preble Street. In an interview, Gattine said the idea behind the bill is to provide funding for the on-site, comprehensive services that are needed at housing first complexes. Gattine and Swann both said funding for such services has been the major barrier to creating more housing first sites, rather than the actual building of the units.
“There’s an opportunity to do something really transformation statewide,” Gattine said, adding that investing in a housing first approach is “just the right thing to do.”
Gattine said he doesn’t yet know how much money for housing first services will be included in the bill, saying that number is still being nailed down. However, Gattine — who serves on the Appropriations and Financial Affairs Committee — said he’s hopeful lawmakers will make housing first funding a priority.
Swann said he’s optimistic that legislation funding services for housing first projects could ultimately lead to the development of 12 to 15 more sites, with each site containing around 30 units. That has the potential to create 400 additional housing first units, Swann said, which he noted is close to the number of chronically unhoused people in Maine (as opposed to the larger number of people who are homeless for a short time).
“That would have an enormous effect on the chronically homeless population,” Swann said.
Gattine agreed that the measure could potentially help around 400 people obtain shelter through housing first sites.
Housing first approach draws support from advocates
Those with lived experience being unhoused also say investing further in housing first could be transformational.
“Site-based housing first provides a low-barrier and supportive option for unhoused individuals who are struggling with other housing options,” the group Homeless Voices for Justice said in a statement. “By providing 24/7 staffing and support for folks, site-based housing first encourages stability, provides comfort, and cultivates community.”
The group, which Preble Street helps support, added that “stable housing changes lives, and site-based housing first is one way to ensure that folks find homes and communities that enable them to remain stably housed and safe.”
Craig Saddlemire, development organizer for Raise-Op — a housing cooperative that helps convene the coalition Housing Justice Maine — also said elected officials’ focus on getting people into homes is promising, although he wants to see the specifics of the policy being put forward.
Saddlemire added that he would like policymakers to go beyond simply instituting housing first for some people. He noted that fully funding efforts to make housing affordable for everyone along with once again providing emergency rental assistance — a pandemic-era program that recently ended — would ensure that Maine is pursuing a housing first approach for all its residents.
Eviction filings in Maine jumped 27% in 2022 over the previous year, demonstrating the failings of the state’s current housing approach.
“Housing first as a philosophy best implemented is going to take into consideration rental assistance, units available, supportive services, as well as market regulations that make sure we have affordable and available homes for everyone,” Saddlemire said.