Donna Pirone, the welfare director in the town of Alfred, wasn’t sure what to think one day in July when she opened an envelope and found a bill from the city of Portland. The tab: $10.02.

It turned out a resident of the York County town had spent one night in Portland’s Oxford Street Shelter, a city-run emergency refuge for the homeless.

The bill for $10.02 represented the portion of a nightly charge that wasn’t covered by state General Assistance funds and would otherwise be paid by Portland taxpayers.

“I was kind of surprised they sent us a bill,” Pirone said. “I guess I felt obligated to pay it because the person came from Alfred.”

But when Portland later notified Alfred, population 3,050, that it could expect another bill soon, town officials decided to ask state officials if the charge was legal and whether they are obligated to pay.

The answer they and other municipalities have been receiving is “yes,” as long as Portland can prove prior residency.

The bills are part of a new effort that began in June by Maine’s largest city to get other communities in the state to chip in for the costs of running the 154-bed Oxford Street Shelter. It’s one of the only municipally run shelters in New England and the only low-barrier shelter in southern Maine that doesn’t turn people away based on residency, financial status and other factors.

Nearly 2,000 people a year sleep on mats at the 31-year-old shelter or in nearby overflow facilities, and more than two-thirds of those people are not from Portland.

People who come from other Maine communities represent more than one-third of the total users, and their numbers have been growing.

A slightly smaller percentage are from other states, while a much smaller percentage are from other countries.

According to data provided by the city, 37.5 percent of the 1,922 people who stayed at the Oxford Street Shelter last year were from Maine municipalities other than Portland, even though there are nearly three dozens other shelters, all operated by nonprofits for specific types of clients, scattered throughout the state.

That flow of people from other Maine communities has been relatively consistent over the last decade, but has grown so far this year. As of August, nearly 41 percent of the shelter’s 1,378 guests were from other Maine towns.

While the city counts people only on their first night at the shelter and not every night they stay there, it is possible some people are being double-counted in those totals. That’s because someone who has not stayed at the shelter for at least 90 days is counted as a new intake.

While the shelter is a regional resource, Portland residents have been shouldering most of the financial burden. For several years, city officials have been trying to find better ways to pay for the service. And the city is getting some support from the state in its effort to share the burden with other towns.

“We recognize the need for this assistance and support Portland in its effort to apply the law so that the city is not unfairly absorbing another municipality’s appropriate expenditures,” said Emily Spencer, spokeswoman for the Maine Department of Health and Human Services. “Our guidance also outlined the need for a notice to, or agreement with, the original municipality before granting shelter assistance.”

Yet despite the new billing procedure created with state input, some of the communities that have the largest number of residents staying at the city shelter – Biddeford, for example – are resisting Portland’s efforts.

“I’m not sure their interpretation is right regarding their ability to bill this out,” Biddeford City Manager James Bennett said.

Between June and August, Portland sent bills to 17 communities and notified over a dozen more that they can expect bills. City officials said, so far, they have billed for just over $1,000.

While trying to document residency and bill other communities has proved to be a challenge and the reimbursements have, so far, been modest, Portland City Manager Jon Jennings says he feels obligated to try on behalf of the city’s taxpayers. And some southern Maine cities have yet to receive their bills, which are sure to be much more substantial that the one sent to Alfred.

Not everyone agrees it’s worth the effort, however, even in Portland. And city officials are unable to predict how much in reimbursements it might receive.

‘OTHERS NEED TO SHARE IN THIS COST’

Jennings said state law clearly allows the city to recoup costs if it can prove prior residency in another community.

Portland has long had a policy of sheltering anyone in need, regardless of where the person is from. But if the resistance continues, Jennings said he will urge the City Council to have a discussion about whom the city should be serving, saying it’s unfair for Portland taxpayers to shoulder the cost of a regional and statewide service.

“I feel strongly that others need to share in this cost or the city needs to look at other policies that would require other municipalities to build shelters or figure out their own way of temporarily housing their homeless population,” said Jennings, who noted he met with Gov. Paul LePage about the issue a couple of years ago.

One such policy, which may require a law or rule change at the state level, is a residency requirement, where only people from Portland could use its shelter. Portland could also consider capping the number of people staying at its shelters, rather than opening overflow sites when demand exceeds capacity.

It would be the first such restriction since the city created the shelter in response to a historic tent city protest outside City Hall.

“I’m not saying this is the direction the city will necessarily be going,” Jennings said. “It’s been a few decades since there were 50 people camping out in Lincoln Park. We should have this conversation.”

The cost to Portland has only grown since 2015, when the state upended a longstanding agreement to pay for the shelter’s operational costs and began reimbursing the city only for a portion of the bed-nights used by people who are eligible for General Assistance.

Historically, the state had allowed Portland to presume that everyone staying at the shelter was eligible for General Assistance. But after a state audit found that some long-term shelter residents had significant savings, the state demanded that the city screen shelter guests and only request state reimbursements for those who meet GA eligibility standards – which essentially means no savings or income.

In the year prior to the state change, Portland taxpayers paid for only $28,000 of the annual $2.7 million shelter cost, with the rest coming from the state. Last fiscal year, they contributed over $1.2 million to the nearly $3.3 million in total costs.

City officials said that only 51.5 percent of the people staying at the shelter meet the eligibility standards for state-funded assistance. The others are deemed ineligible mostly because they have an income source – whether it’s sporadic wages from temporary work or from Social Security. Some of those who stay at the shelter have jobs and are saving for apartments. Others have savings but may have mental illness or other limitations preventing them from becoming independent.

“It is a requirement that to be eligible for GA you have to provide receipts from your income on how you spent your income,” Portland Social Services Director David MacLean said in an email. “Any income not spent on basic necessities is counted twice in terms of the total monthly income that would be compared to income guidelines.”

The new billing procedure comes as Portland is looking to build a new $10 million homeless shelter on Brighton Avenue. Although some neighbors worried about the plan have asked the city what other communities are doing to help homeless people who end up in Portland, city officials say the two initiatives are not linked.

City Hall Communications Director Jessica Grondin said in written statement that the new billing procedure follows several failed attempts at state legislation, including a bill to make homelessness an emergency so that it would be easier to obtain state funding for the shelter.

“That is what has led us to now,” Grondin said. “The timing is not related to the new shelter location.”

VERIFYING RESIDENCY TAKES TIME

The billing process is proving to be difficult.

Based on advice from state officials, MacLean said the city is notifying municipalities when one of their residents reports to the shelter. It establishes prior residency based on self-reporting and third party verification, including utility bills, old leases or references. The process can take days – even weeks – and city officials often run into dead ends, because phones are disconnected and documents are scarce.

“The challenges are many,” MacLean said in an email.

Although Portland does not require people to be eligible for General Assistance to stay at the shelter, MacLean said that the city is only billing other towns for GA-eligible guests and only for the amount that is not reimbursed by the state. If someone is GA-eligible, the state pays 70 percent of bed-nights costs, which are established by the state to be $33.40 a night for Portland, and municipalities must pay the rest.

The fact that it takes so much work to recover modest payments is raising some doubts about the initiative.

Portland Mayor Ethan Strimling questions whether it’s worth the time and effort, and he said he also opposes any effort to restrict access to the city’s shelters. Instead, the city and surrounding communities need to spend more on housing people who are currently homeless, build more, smaller shelters and increase other efforts to house the chronically homeless.

“I have no interest (in) making our shelter more difficult to enter,” Strimling said. “These are people in our community we need to help, whether they’ve been here one day or 15 years.”

But Jennings argues it’s his obligation to Portland taxpayers to pursue reimbursements, whether they are large or little.

“I do think it is our fiscal responsibility to the taxpayers of the city of Portland to seek this level of reimbursement from other cities and not continue to shoulder the financial burden of what is a regional issue of homelessness,” Jennings said.

SOME MUNICIPALITIES BALK

Sidney, a small town just north of Augusta, has paid the biggest bill to date – $100.02 for a 10-night stay. GA administrator Angela Nelson said she was surprised to receive the bill, since Portland never contacted her office in advance. She paid the bill only after verifying the town’s obligation with state officials.

Nelson said it’s rare that anyone in the town of 4,200 people contacts her office seeking emergency shelter. Portland’s records indicate that only one person at the shelter reported being from Sidney so far this year and for all of last year.

“Sidney doesn’t have any hotels or housing, so we don’t have that happen very often,” Nelson said. “I’m not sure what brought them down to Portland.”

Nelson said she is resigned to paying the bills and does not expect it to create a financial hardship for the town. “It’s a service, so it’s legal to do. There’s not much we can do,” she said.

Alfred, which recently paid the $10.02 bill from the city, has had nine people in the shelter this year, compared to 10 last year, based only on self-reporting when they arrive.

Just because a new arrival says he or she came from a certain community doesn’t mean the city can document it and seek reimbursement.

The only other payment received by the city so far is from Eliot, a town of 6,400 in York County that paid $40.08 for four bed-nights. So far this year, only two people at the shelter have said they’re from Eliot, compared to only one person last year, according to city records.

While smaller towns are paying their bills, some of the larger communities in Greater Portland, which have higher numbers of residents using the city’s shelter, are questioning the city’s new practice.

People listing Westbrook, South Portland and Biddeford as prior residences are more routine users of the Portland shelter – making them the top three other communities outside of Portland. In recent years, people from those three cities account for about 12 percent, 10 percent and 8 percent, respectively, of the total number of people from other Maine towns.

So far this year, 561 people from other Maine communities have checked into Portland’s shelter. Sixty-eight people have said they are from Westbrook, while 59 people have said they are from South Portland and 45 have said they’re from Biddeford. City officials could not say how many nights each person spent at the shelter – a metric that would determine potential reimbursement.

But Portland officials cautioned that the city would not necessarily be able to recoup the costs of all of those bed nights, given the difficulty in proving their prior residency and that not all are necessarily eligible for general assistance.

‘A LITTLE DISAPPOINTED’

Managers in those cities near Portland were also surprised to begin receiving bills because the city had not had any conversations – at least at the manager level – before sending them.

So far, Biddeford has been billed $170.34 and Westbrook as been billed $280.56.

“I’ve expressed to Jon (Jennings) I’m a little disappointed we didn’t know about it,” said Bennett, Biddeford’s manager. “We clearly understand that Portland has been shouldering a burden that’s quite frankly a state burden.”

Bennett said he thinks Portland has some flaws in its process. For example, he said the city tried to bill Biddeford for the shelter stay of someone Biddeford officials know has financial resources. Additionally, he said, his city should have more of a say in who is provided services, especially if it is going to get billed.

“There are a lot of issues here,” Bennett said. “Quite frankly given the pressure and expectations that all taxpayers have – whether it’s $33, $3,300 or $33,000 – we’re going to watch those pennies no matter the amount in order to do what’s right for our taxpayers.”

South Portland has been notified to expect future bills, but has not received any since Portland is still working on confirming prior residency.

Though Jennings credits South Portland for being one of the few communities to express interest in assisting with shelter costs, South Portland GA Director Kathleen Babeau said she would be closely scrutinizing any bills sent by Portland. Ultimately, she would like South Portland residents to contact her office before heading to Portland.

“We’re doing the best we can here in South Portland to have our residents not get to that point,” she said.

Westbrook City Administrator Jerre Bryant said he doesn’t mind paying for GA-eligible clients for legitimate residents. But he thinks that the state should be providing more funding for emergency shelter.

“Having every single community trying to run a shelter facility is incredibly costly and incredibly inefficient,” Bryant said. “In many cases, they just don’t do it.”

While the LePage administration has focused on reducing social services and foisting more of those costs onto municipalities, Bennett, the Biddeford manager, said he hopes the incoming administration – whether its Republican, Democratic or independent – will be more willing to invest in Maine’s emergency shelters.

“Maybe this is the catalyst to have a dialogue about how do we as a state deal with the homeless issues,” he said.

 

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