Unlike Bangor, these cities across the country have found solutions to rising homelessness

Bangor’s growing homeless population is something locals recognize as one of the main challenges the city currently faces – although city officials have yet to develop a comprehensive strategy to cope with this growth.

But the city is far from unique in its troubles. Across the country, urban areas large and small have had to deal with growing numbers of homeless people, an increase exacerbated by the pandemic and soaring housing costs. It can sometimes seem like a problem that will never really be solved.

But some cities have had great success getting people off the streets and housing them – and not all are large urban areas with the resources to do so.

One thing many of these communities have in common is that they are all part of Built For Zero, a program run by national nonprofit Community Solutions, which aims to help cities and towns reduce their population. from homelessness to “functional zero”, where homelessness is rare and brief. It has partnered with over 100 communities nationwide.

Warner Strout, a Mission Church outreach volunteer, checks on Alekai Chase (left) and Xaivier Reichardt, who live in the homeless encampment known as Tent City in Bangor. Credit: Linda Coan O’Kresik / BDN

In February, MaineHousing announced it would join Built For Zero in a statewide effort, with nine regions across the state creating their own service centers. In the Bangor area, which is part of the region covering Penobscot and Piscataquis counties, Community Health and Counseling Services was awarded the service center contract. A pilot program is expected to launch this fall.

One of the goals of Built For Zero is to create a “command center” that consolidates multiple service organizations under one roof, making it easier to access services; create a census by name of each local person experiencing homelessness; and to make strategic investments in housing where it will be most effective.

Rockford, Illinois, a city of about 147,000 not far from Chicago and Milwaukee, began her work to seriously address the root causes of homelessness in 2015 when she joined Built for Zero. . In January 2017, it made headlines when it became the first community in the country to end both veterans and chronic homelessness, and by early 2020 it was poised to eliminate the homeless completely.

It has achieved many of these goals by developing partnerships between service organizations in the area, all of which are connected through Community Action, the city’s centralized provider alliance through which people can access a range of services. , from housing to medical care to addiction treatment.

In 2015, it also began collecting this list of names of every homeless person in the community – a list it continues to update, seven years after the process began. Social workers also obtain information about people’s medical and mental health histories and other basic information, so they can more effectively match individuals with personalized services, housing and other resources.

When the pandemic hit, what could have been a long-term roadblock for Rockford to achieve the goal of ending homelessness turned out to be a temporary setback, as the city recommitted to its efforts .

“Once the pandemic hit, our agency never closed and never stopped working with the homeless population,” said Rockford Mayor Tom McNamara. “We have worked with our local health departments, agencies and shelters to ensure our population remains as healthy as possible, and we have continued to house people as quickly as possible.”

Farther west, in Oregon’s Marion and Polk counties, home to the capital Salem and major suburbs like Keizer and Woodburn, the creation of this list of individuals’ names was crucial to leaders’ efforts. the low.

“There’s a saying, ‘If you’ve met homeless, you’ve met homeless,'” said Cathy Clark, mayor of Keizer and president of the Mid-Willamette Valley Homeless Alliance, the organization created in 2019. to tackle the problem. “The homeless are not a monolith. Each person has complex needs that often do not respond to a single approach.

The Mid-Willamette Valley Homeless Alliance joined Built for Zero in October 2019 and now has several Marion and Polk county organizations under its umbrella, including nonprofits, city departments, school districts, faith groups and tribal governments. This is a major departure from its previous model, which encompassed 20 counties and which by 2018 had become cumbersome and inefficient.

In June 2021, the Homeless Alliance completed its first by-name data list for all people experiencing chronic homelessness, and by October 2021 had acquired nearly $10 million in federal grants to fight against homelessness, which it distributes to the organizations under its aegis. . Some of the projects its associated groups have accomplished include the creation of two micro-shelter communities by the local church organization Church at the Park and the launch of a new program to end youth homelessness.

Church at the Park, part of the Mid-Willamette Valley Homeless Alliance in Oregon, has worked on a number of outreach programs, including building temporary micro-shelters on the site of a former encampment and l hot meal offerings, including Thanksgiving dinner, where unhoused people congregate. Credit: Courtesy of Church at the Park

Clark said Built for Zero’s approach was a perfect match for what the Homeless Alliance hoped to achieve, and that collaboration and focus were key to their early success.

“It’s very easy, when you engage in this work, to get distracted by protocols, conflicts, or power struggles,” she said. “Every meeting we have, we end it by reminding everyone why we’re here, which is that it’s still about this human being, and that even if this person doesn’t believe that she deserves to live in a healthy and safe environment, We do. Staying focused will help you get through those difficult conversations.

But Salem and Rockford are much larger towns than Bangor. Burlington, Vermont, population 42,600, is more like Bangor, especially in terms of population, demographics, and geography. He also partnered with Built For Zero from February 2018.

Like Bangor, Burlington was already experiencing a homelessness crisis that has only grown and worsened during the pandemic. Likewise, Burlington has partnered with a local motel to temporarily house people safely during the pandemic. Burlington has also experienced rapid growth in housing costs in recent years.

But when American Rescue Plan Act funds were allocated to cities across the country last year, Burlington moved quickly to allocate the money and conducted a survey of residents in October 2021 — a process that Bangor n began only in May 2022. Among the top priorities of this survey was investing in infrastructure to address homelessness, a need identified in the city’s action plan to end homelessness, whose goals include doubling housing production by 2026 and ending chronic homelessness by 2024.

“It was clear that collective shelters did not work during the pandemic. But pushing people into motels was also not an ideal solution, given the scarcity of this type of real estate available,” said Sarah Russell, Burlington’s special assistant to end homelessness. “But the non-collective shelter was a very good model. And that’s where the idea of ​​the pods came from.

In February 2022, the Burlington City Council approved a plan to spend $1.5 million in US bailout funds to build shelters for the temporary housing of the homeless. The pods are made by Vermont company Up End This and are outfitted by the Pallet Company, which has worked with a number of cities across the country to create shelter pods.

The 25 single-occupancy and five double-occupancy pods, all air-conditioned and lockable, will be located in a city-owned parking lot in Burlington’s Old North End and will include a separate building with showers, restrooms and laundry facilities. The site will be managed by the local not-for-profit Champlain Housing Trust, which will match individuals and families with their own modules and then work with them to eventually move from temporary shelter to permanent housing.

By the time work is complete on the entire capsule site in December, Burlington estimates it will be home to about half of the city’s homeless population. In total, the process of creating the shelter module site took less than a year.

“I think we recognized that we needed to be creative and innovative in our response,” Russell said. “Giving people their own space, where they can have privacy, where the barrier to access is low, is an approach that has really worked in many places.”

Toya J. Bell