AUGUSTA — Kristopher Hartford and Tatiana Nirza said they were lucky to get beds in the Bread of Life homeless shelter just two days after they called.
They’ve been living at the shelter for about three weeks with their 7-month-old son, Kayden, because the income from Hartford’s part-time job at a fast food restaurant isn’t enough to support them.
“It’s pretty much hit or miss when you call,” said Nirza, 17.
It may take others weeks to get a bed.
Dean Lachance, executive director of Bread of Life Ministries, said openings at the 30-bed emergency housing shelter are usually filled within 24 hours.
“They literally call every day or show up in the driveway, either in a car or walking,” he said. “Winter, summer, you name it.”
The shelter has been turning away around 100 people each month this year, according to Lachance.
Last December, the shelter turned away 224 people looking for housing.
“There are 43 shelters in Maine, and they’re always full,” Lachance said, “And there’s always a huge need. But since 2008, we’ve seen even more requests try to get in a bed.”
Every year the Maine State Housing Authority releases a federally required survey of the number of people experiencing homelessness on one particular night near the end of January.
This year’s annual point-in-time survey, released earlier this month, showed that 1,175 people were homeless in Maine on January 30.
The snapshot of one night doesn’t represent the number of homeless people in a year, but that snapshot has grown every year since 2008, when 776 were recorded.
The number of unique clients in homeless shelters in the state and Kennebec County has stayed more consistent over the last five years, fluctuating between 600 and 700 a year in Kennebec County. Nationally, homelessness in the U.S. declined 4.6 percent from 2008 to 2012, according to the National Alliance to End Homelessness.
The time people spend in the homeless shelters in Maine, however, has increased.
The average number of bed nights in shelters in Maine increased from 31.6 to 42.1 between 2008 and 2012, according to data from the Maine State Housing Authority.
Kennebec County saw a slightly smaller increase, 27.8 to 36.1.
Lachance said many people stay at the Bread of Life Ministries shelter for three to six months.
Mid-Maine Homeless Shelter in Waterville has seen the need for emergency housing growing, said Betty Palmer, director of the 48-bed shelter.
Last week, the shelter assisted three new families in one night that had been living in cars or tents with children under the age of 1.
They squeezed one family in the shelter and helped two others with alternative housing arrangements for a few days until they could get them in, she said.
In addition to the 30-bed shelter in Augusta, Bread of Life runs a 12-bed shelter for veterans, which is paid for through a contract with the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs and is in its second year.
Carol Kulesza, Healthcare for Homeless Veterans program coordinator at VA Medical Campus Center, said the shelter for veterans has been successful.
“One of the ways we’re measuring that is our beds are constantly being utilized,” she said. “It’s very rare we have an opening.”
The Bread of Life Ministries also has a food kitchen, a life skills resource center, and transitional and permanent housing in Augusta.
Lachance said the goal of all the services is to break the cycle of poverty and move people on to living on their own.
The resource center offers classes and workshops on topics like budgeting, parenting, nutrition, stress management and career services.
The organization’s 84 units of permanent and transitional housing are the next step after the emergency housing homeless shelter, Lachance said. Tenants pay a third of their income for rent or $50.
“All the pieces and parts are there that will help someone become self sufficient,” he said. “And the model works. The model works. If people are capable and willing to work with us, we’ll get them back to self sufficiency.”
Hartford, 19, said he and Nirza plan on moving to transitional housing soon.
He said the programs have been helpful in preparing him for getting back on his feet.
“There are a lot of people here that are good-hearted people that just don’t have the means to succeed,” Hartford said.
Santa Havener, 26, said she’s been living in the shelter for about two weeks.
She said she’s homeless partly because of substance abuse problems. “I’m here because I ran out of options.”
Havener, who’s pregnant with her fourth child, said she’s struggled to find work because employers are wary about hiring someone that will soon take maternity leave.
Her mother is taking care of her other kids, she said.
Havener said she’s taking part in the state’s vocational rehabilitation program, so she’ll be able to get a job after she has the child.
“I don’t want to just be sitting here if I can’t work,” she said. “I want to be working toward getting a certificate.
Lachance said shelters like the one at Bread of Life Ministries are funded through a combination of state and federal funding, grants and fundraising.
The shelters are reimbursed for bed nights through the Maine State Housing Authority, but not all beds are covered. Shelters can supplement the funding through grants, donations and local support, according to Deborah Turcotte, spokeswoman for the housing authority.
The Maine State Housing Authority distributes approximately $3.2 million annually in state and federal funds for shelter operations, according to Turcotte.
Despite the growing demand for beds, shelter operations funding has been flat for the last five years.
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development doesn’t recommend adding more beds because funding isn’t available to cover them, according to Turcotte.
The Statewide Homeless Council has also put a moratorium on the number of beds for which shelters will be reimbursed, she said.
Besides the Bread of Life shelters, the other homeless shelters in Augusta are run by the Family Violence Project, specifically for victims of domestic violence.
Havener said she’s thankful to have a place that she knows she can sleep each night.
Without the shelter, Havener said she would sleep wherever she ended up at night, or she would just walk around.
She said she likes that the staff at Bread of Life Ministries always try to make people feel as comfortable as possible, although she occasionally sees some using the resources at the shelter because they’re lazy.
“People are not as grateful as they should be sometimes,” Havener said. “And then there are others that are just glad to come through the door and take a shower.”
Paul Koenig — 621-5663