Colder than normal temperatures are causing large numbers of people to seek housing in homeless shelters, which are struggling to meet the demand.
And with the cold continuing, followed by a predicted snowstorm on Sunday, the situation is expected to get worse.
“We have fielded 18 calls already this morning and it’s only 10:30,” Betty Palmer, executive director of the Mid-Maine Homeless Shelter said Friday.
Palmer said the 50-bed shelter housed 38 people on Thursday night and would probably be at or over capacity on Friday night.
In order to meet the demand, volunteers were rolling out floor mats and portable cribs.
“By midnight, we’ll have all 17 floor mats filled, plus,” she said.
Palmer said temporary living arrangements, like staying in a car, become untenable for some people when the temperatures get too low.
Others stick it out, she said, because they would rather suffer alone than live in a shelter with dozens of other people.
“We had a guy yesterday living in a shed,” she said. “We couldn’t convince him to come in. It’s hard to convince some people to come live with 50 or 60 people.”
In Skowhegan, the Trinity Men’s Shelter has seen its call volume double recently, to about four or five calls a day, according to Pastor Richard Berry of the Trinity Evangelical Free Church, which operates the shelter.
He said there is no mystery behind the increase in call volume. It’s the cold.
“Let’s put it this way. Would you want to be sleeping under a bridge tonight?” he said.
By contrast, the Rev. Steve Bracy, pastor of the Living Waters Assembly Church of God in Farmington said the church’s shelter, which just opened a month ago, still has most of its beds open.
He said two families are using four of the shelter’s 16 beds, and that the cold hasn’t generated any additional calls.
“We were a little surprised,” he said.
With forecast temperatures in central Maine plunging to as low as 10 below zero Saturday morning and a possible 10 inches or more of snow beginning to fall Saturday night, driving conditions around much of the state are expected to be treacherous, according to Tom Hawley, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Gray.
The snow is expected to start in central Maine late Saturday night, at about midnight, and continue until about 3 p.m. Sunday. In all, about six to 12 inches is predicted for the Augusta area, eight to 10 inches are expected to fall in the Waterville area, and about five to nine inches in the Farmington area.
On Saturday morning, Hawley said to expect a low of five below in Waterville and 10 below in Farmington, with wind chills pushing the temperature to about 15 below in both places. Sunday’s temperatures aren’t expected to rise above the mid-teens.
He said the snow will be light and fluffy snow, which could create large snowdrifts.
“Driving conditions will be fairly bad over a large area of the state,” he said. “It will be a good nor’easter.”
Citing the weather, the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland rescheduled the dedication of the new St. Faustina Church in Jackman to Saturday at 4 p.m., well before the snow is expected to hit.
Bishop Richard Malone, of the Diocese of Portland, canceled his scheduled Sunday appearance at the dedication mass, delegating his duties to Pastor Kevin Martin of St. Anthony of Padua Parish in Jackman.
Gov. Paul LePage declared a state of emergency in a proclamation allowing Maine’s fuel delivery trucks to drive additional hours to meet the anticipated increased heating fuel demands of the state’s residents for the next two weeks.
A statement released by his office said the state’s supplies of propane are 25 percent lower than normal and that unusually cold weather is expected for the next 30 days.
Budget crunches freezing homeless
Faced with shrinking state and federal support, some homeless support services have undergone additional strains, or disappeared altogether.
“Our budget is hurting, but we can’t put people out in the cold,” Palmer said.
About 40 homeless shelters around the state were affected by a 30 percent reduction, some because of federal sequestration cuts, in the federal Emergency Solutions Grants program, which is administered by the Maine State Housing Authority on behalf of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. In all, about $330,000 was lost to the state.
Palmer said the Mid-Maine Homeless Shelter took a $30,000 hit from the reduction.
Reduced funding had an even larger impact in Skowhegan, where the Halcyon House, a 10-bed shelter which provided emergency housing for 68 homeless youths last year, closed its doors in September. Thomas McAdam, the chief executive officer of Kennebec Behavioral Health, which ran the shelter, said the funding cuts created a climate in which the Halcyon House couldn’t continue without threatening the organization’s other services.
In Augusta, the 30-bed homeless shelter operated by Bread of Life Ministries is always full, according to Dean Lachance, the executive director. “We’re always at 100 percent,” he said. “If a room or bed becomes available, it’s filled within 24 hours.”
He said the shelter, which sometimes turns away as many as 140 people in a month, has also felt the impact of the cuts, which he said are part of a larger pattern of decreased funding over the past eight years.
Lachance hasn’t noticed an increase in calls yet this season, but said he has learned to expect a bump in January.
“During the coldest part of winter, people are leaving their friends and family after the holidays and Christmas present bills are starting to come due, which adds a whole other set of stress,” he said.
He said the loss of seasonal Christmas jobs also takes a toll during that time period.
Warming center closed
The Waterville Area Warming Center, which offered area residents an opportunity to get out of the cold during daytime hours for the last two winters, will not be open this year.
The board of directors at The United Way, which ran the warming center, decided over the summer not to reopen the center, not because of funding issues, but because it didn’t anticipate a demand for the warming center this year.
Last year, the warming center was used almost exclusively by residents of the Mid-Maine Homeless Shelter, which was closed during daytime hours at the time.
This year, the homeless shelter is open to its residents 24 hours a day, which seems to have eliminated the need for the warming center, according to United Way board member Michael Barrett, chairman of the committee that oversaw the center.
“If you’re not really meeting the target audience, you should be doing something else,” Barrett said. He said if a demand for the service became apparent, the board would revisit the idea for next year.
Palmer said that, while the homeless shelter is now open during the day, it doesn’t provide warming services to the community at large.
“We have children here,” she said. “We can’t have people who may not be safe coming in around the shelter, and we can’t check people who may only be here for an hour.”
Palmer said homeless shelters are the last line of defense for people who have nowhere else to go. The solution to surges in demand isn’t to build more homeless shelter capacity, she said. It’s to have more affordable housing options for those people so that they don’t need a homeless shelter in the first place.
“We need to get our community to invest in homeless prevention,” Palmer said. “Getting more shelter beds is not going to end homelessness.”