No other city or town in Maine has a scene quite like the one you can see in Portland any night of the year, when nearly 300 people line up for fewer than 150 mats at the city’s homeless shelter.

Some of the men and women are people who were pushed over the edge of extreme poverty by a run of bad luck. Some are there because they made poor choices with drugs or alcohol and lost control of their lives. Some suffer from mental illness that prevents them from accepting help.

But they all have one thing in common: They are lining up in Portland.

This makes homelessness look like a Portland problem, but it is not. According to data collected by the city, only about one-third of the people who sleep in the shelters are Portland residents. The largest group — 37 percent — are people from other Maine towns who come to Portland for help, sometimes at the direction of local welfare directors.

What looks like a local problem quickly turns into a state issue and one that should be dealt with on the state level. A bill now before the Legislature, L.D. 443, which would extend $2 million in state funding to the state’s 42 homeless shelters, would be a good first step.

Portland, Maine’s biggest city, is also the home of the state’s only municipally operated shelter. Created as a temporary measure in the 1980s, it has become a permanent last line of defense against homelessness.


The Oxford Street Shelter is owned and staffed by city employees, even though most of its budget comes from the state. For the last three decades, Portland has used General Assistance funds to operate the shelter, and most of its costs have reimbursed.

That changed this year, when the LePage administration declared it would no longer honor the informal agreement regarding operating costs and the practice of presuming that anyone who lines up for a shelter bed is poor enough to qualify for services through GA. This has put a $1 million hole in next year’s city budget.

Gov. Paul LePage and Health and Human Services Commissioner Mary Mayhew have called Portland an “outlier” that spends more than its share of the state’s General Assistance budget, but research conducted by Maine Sunday Telegram reporter Randy Billings shows Portland is not spending more than other cities and towns by choice.

Aside from a dispute over General Assistance for asylum-seeking immigrants, which is currently before a judge, Portland has been repeatedly found to be in compliance with state standards. What has changed is the LePage administration’s idea that the city should shoulder more of the burden on its own.

It is not more generous services that lead so many poor people to move to Portland, but the array and concentration of services here. Government social service offices are housed in Portland, as well as private-sector charities that help people survive. The city is also a location for low-income rental housing as well as a lot of employers. Just as every town can’t have its own hospital, social services also are distributed through hubs.

If the state is looking for a better way to pay for these services, it does not have to look very far. Just this session, the Legislature is considering a bill with broad bipartisan support that would change the way charter schools are funded.


Instead of making individual districts pay tuition when one of their students goes to a charter school, the state pays the new school directly. The notion behind this payment method is that school districts should share the burden of adding new schools fairly, instead of making the districts nearest the charters pay the whole freight.

The same logic applies to homeless shelters, which are regional services, and the concept informs the bipartisan proposal to increase state funding to these facilities.

Ideally, this would not be a local function at all. Town lines had more meaning when people lived and worked all of their lives in the same community. Today, many people live in one town, work in another and move often.

But as long as municipal governments have the responsibility of administering these programs, the costs should be shared.

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