Homelessness remains a pressing issue in America. On any given night in the US, more than 600,000 people are without adequate shelter or permanent housing.
In Maine, the rate of homelessness increased 26% in 2013 for a total of over 3,000 people – that’s 600 people more than the year before, with many of these being families.
According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, each homeless person costs U.S. taxpayers $40,000 per year. That means Mainers are paying over $120 million a year in homelessness costs.
What is being done to help this situation and reduce the cost to Maine taxpayers?
According to Craig Phillips, Executive Director of Tedford Housing, “homelessness is complex,” said Phillips. “There are a variety of issues — domestic violence, lack of education, behavioral and mental health issues all can play a role in causing someone to be homeless.”
Tedford Housing is one organization who’s trying to reduce homelessness in Maine by giving homeless people the help they need to live better lives and find permanent homes. The nonprofit currently operates two emergency shelters in Brunswick—one for single adults and one for families—along with supportive housing in Brunswick, Bath, Lewiston, and Auburn.
Tedford employs a Housing First approach. This model has an immediate and primary focus on helping individuals and families quickly access and sustain permanent housing and then assessing and providing additional services to help them become more economically independent.
This might be addressed by providing rental subsidies. Additionally, identifying community resources that meet their needs and provide necessary services—whether it’s addressing issues like substance abuse, the lack of financial literacy—and connecting them with partners that support the acquisition of specific workplace skills. This approach helps individuals navigate around challenges, secure employment, and provides them with a firm foundation to build upon for success.
The nature of existence for organizations like Tedford Housing is a precarious one. They rely on a mix of funding sources to fund their work that includes, but is not limited to: private contributions, government grants and donations, and of course, corporate contributions. They spend a lot of time each year trying to get this funding – time that could be better spent on their work to reduce the Maine homeless population, that if not addressed, will continue to rise and cost Mainers’ even more tax dollars.
“We’ve just gone through some strategic planning at Tedford,” says Phillips. “One of the themes that came out of this was about changing the culture of communities—so communities are more aware about homelessness and its causes, and understand the negative impact it has on our communities.”
“Changing our culture helps in the recognition of the larger issues—the number of low-paying jobs, the mental illness issue—all of these things contribute directly to homelessness,” he said.
There are companies here in Maine who are recognizing the efforts of organizations like Tedford Housing and stepping in to help them further their work. As an example, Tedford was chosen to receive funding through Electricity Maine’s Power to Help Fund, as one of the company’s Core Partners. Core Partners are non-profit organizations in Maine that work to create long-term positive change in their communities.
Homelessness is one of the “core” areas that Electricity Maine has chosen to support. The company gives 2% of a customers electricity supply on specific rate plans to Tedford Housing to help them with their work in reducing Maine homelessness. After being a Core Partner for just six months, Electricity Maine donated $20,000 to Tedford Housing, as well as seven other non-profit partners, to help them in their work.
“Electricity Maine’s partnership with us has brought, no pun intended, “energy” to our organization. It validates the importance of this issue when a major company highlights homelessness. Their (Electricity Maine’s) media presence alone has been a great help to us – we’re on their website, we’re highlighted twice a year in a direct mail piece to their customers and on an on-going basis in their community work, among other things — it’s coverage that we have never received before and couldn’t afford to buy even if we wanted to,” Phillips said.
There is no quick fix to ending homelessness in Maine, as leaders like Phillips will attest. However, Phillips hopes that Electricity Maine’s Power to Help partnership model will help raise awareness of the issues that all Mainers share in with increased homelessness and will help bring other direct resources to bear, focused on solutions.
Phillips elaborated further on the role of for-profit companies in taking on causes, like homelessness, especially in bringing legitimacy to the importance of addressing root causes.
“When a large company takes this (homelessness) on as part of their mission, I think it helps increase people’s knowledge,” he said. “I mean, people see a company that says, ‘homelessness matters and we care about it.’ Maybe they’ll pay more attention and care a little more about the issue and realize people are struggling.”