A proposal for new state legislation targeting homelessness in Maine is still a work in progress, but its references to “Housing First” are a good first step, according to experts who work with the homeless. 

Maine House Speaker Rachel Talbot Ross announced the legislation last week, which is titled, “An Act to End Chronic Homelessness by Creating the Housing First Fund.”  

Much of the bill’s text is still a work in progress, but such a fund could help provide ongoing care for the homeless, even after they find housing. 

“I think that people want to end chronic homeless, and I just hope the bill ends up doing that. It can,” Cullen Ryan, executive director of Community Housing of Maine, a Portland-based nonprofit that offers housing and other programs and services for the homeless, said. 

The term “housing first” may not be a household phrase, but advocates say it represents a decades-old concept that is integral to fighting homelessness, both in Maine and nationwide.  

The concept first developed as a philosophy for creating programs to help the homeless in the late 1990s, according to Steve Berg, chief policy officer for the Washington, D.C.-based National Alliance to End Homelessness. 

“We now use the phrase ‘housing first’ to talk about a sort of comprehensive approach to homelessness that ensures that everyone gets housing,” Berg said.  

What that means in specific terms, Berg said, has evolved over the years, and can vary in different regions nationwide, but the overall idea is to look at homelessness as more than just a lack of a roof over one’s head.  

People, Berg said, are homeless for a variety of reasons — lack of employment, substance abuse problems, mental illness, physical disabilities or a combination of factors. Often, he said, the need for housing and these other complicating factors need to be addressed at once, not piecemeal. 

“For example, trying to help people who are homeless cure their drug addiction while they were homeless, which is a nice thing to try to do but it just doesn’t work very well,” Berg said. 

The housing first concept applies locally as well, according to Ryan. Often, people without homes can’t find apartments or other accommodations because issues they struggle with, such as mental illness, become barriers. 

“If you set up housing that expects members of those populations to clear up all of their symptoms before you’ll consider moving them into housing, you’re setting yourself up for failure,” Ryan said. 

It’s a vicious cycle, Ryan said, since those issues are even harder to overcome while homeless. He cited data from the City of Portland’s Emergency Shelter Assessment Committee, which examines how many housed and unhoused people are in jail and local hospitals on a monthly basis.  

Data from March of 2021 through March of 2023 shows, he said, that people are as much as 29 times more likely to be in the hospital and as much as 57 times more likely to be in jail when unhoused. 

The proposed legislation is still at the committee level, but Ryan said establishing a fund relating to the housing first philosophy will allow for critical ongoing care that the homeless need, even after finding permanent housing. That care is hard to maintain, he said, because manpower remains a perennial problem.  

“Right now, the system does not have adequate support,” he said. 

Ryan said his organization works with shelters, such as Bangor Area Homeless Shelter and Emmaus Homeless Shelter in Ellsworth, along with mental health service groups such as Kennebec Behavioral Health in Augusta and Shalom House in Portland. 

Those groups, Ryan said, need to visit and check in regularly with the homeless after they find housing to make sure they are doing well. That regular contact, which the bill could help pay for, will establish rapport and trust, he said, which then leads to advocates identifying underlying problems, such as mental illness, and helping the formerly homeless find treatment. 

Berg, said he couldn’t comment in detail on the proposed Maine legislation, but he agreed basing it on a housing first model is a good idea. 

“It would be absolutely a smart move,” he said.