Community members and loved ones bid farewell to Russell Williams during a memorial service on Thursday. Williams, a lifelong Brunswick resident, died in his sleeping bag in November. Hannah LaClaire / The Times Record

BRUNSWICK — Scores of people crowded into The Gathering Place, Brunswick’s daytime drop-in center, Thursday to pay their respects to Russell Williams, a homeless man who died in his sleeping bag late last month.

As friends, family and community members gathered to share memories of the man who was described as equal parts loving, funny, kind, exasperating and not without his demons, it was also an opportunity for a community call to action.

“When I think back that Russell died alone by that railroad track, it tugs at my heart,” said Rev. George Hardy, who serves on the board of directors for The Gathering Place. It is time for those “who live on the other side of the railroad tracks” to advocate for more affordable housing and services for the homeless community so that people like Williams do not die alone in the cold, he said. 

The need for more affordable housing is not lost on town officials. 

Rev. Chick Carroll leads a prayer during a memorial service for Russell Williams.

“It’s getting to be a very dire situation. … We need to start really paying closer attention to that,” Town Councilor Jane Millett said during Monday night’s council meeting. “There will not be an opportunity for affordable housing unless the community steps up to the plate.” 

But according to John Hodge, executive director of the Brunswick Housing Authority, there’s no easy fix.

“Many people in the community understand we don’t have enough rental housing,” he said earlier this fall, “it’s just very expensive.” Land and construction costs are both high and “there’s not enough public money to help public developers build housing and (there’s) not enough incentive for private developers to be able to build housing and turn a reasonable profit,” he said. 

Programs like the low-income housing tax credit program, which allows developers to build at a lower cost if a certain number of units are reserved for affordable housing, are helpful, but Hodge said those programs add maybe 250 units across the state every year — not even close to the 10,000 he estimated are needed. 

“It’s a trickle when we need the floodgates to be open,” he said.  

There are more than 17,000 Mainers currently waiting for a housing voucher — a wait that could last anywhere from one to 10 years.

Brunswick Housing Authority is spending 102% of its funding, Hodge said (the extra 2% comes from some reserves), but still only 50% of the vouchers result in permanent housing. 

Williams received his housing voucher and was committed to getting off the streets, but was not able to find an apartment before his voucher expired. He died not long after. 

The 2020 fair market rent in Cumberland County is $1,059 for a two-bedroom apartment, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. The “payment standard,” which Housing Authority’s set between 90% to 110% of the 40th percentile fair market rate, is $1,176 for a two-bedroom apartment, including utilities. 

Brunswick Housing sets its payment standard as high as possible, Hodge said, but it’s still not enough to cover the cost of most housing, with most available two-bedrooms apartments going for anywhere from $1,200 to $1,600 per month. 

“I think whatever methodology they’re using, it’s wrong,” Hodge said of HUD’s fair market rate. “If they had looked at rents in Brunswick, they would see the rents have gone up,” he said, adding that there will always be a supply and demand issue for housing.

For the 17,000 waiting for a voucher, many are only one miss paycheck or one crisis away from homelessness, leaving families to stay with friends, sleep in their cars, on the streets or in shelters, if there is any room available, while they try to get back on their feet. 

In fiscal year 2019, Brunsick’s Tedford Housing served 86 individuals and 23 families in the adult and family shelters, but had to turn away 251 individuals and 205 families due to lack of space. Of those served, 39% of individuals and 88% of families exited to permanent housing.

In April, after more than a year of deliberations, the Brunswick Town Council approved an ordinance establishing rules for homeless shelters in town, allowing Tedford to move forward with plans to build a larger homeless shelter and resource center in town. According to Executive Director Craig Phillips, a great deal changed between the time they first approached the council in 2018 and when the ordinance passed early this year, including staffing changes that would require a reevaluation of plans and a reorganization of the committees. As of yet, no new plans have been announced. Phillips is retiring at the end of the year. 

Now is the time, Hardy and others at the remembrance agreed, to find a light in the face of tragedy, to find a solution. 

The town must pull together, he said, for love and hope, to “be God’s people, to be Russell’s people going forward.”

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