Dawn Wade sits on the couch of her studio apartment at Huston Commons in Portland. Huston Commons is an example of a “housing first” community that offers permanent living with support services for people who are chronically homeless. Wade has lived there for all five years that it has been open. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

Dawn Wade knows her place is cluttered, with knickknacks, plants, food containers and artwork covering almost every square inch of her studio apartment in Portland. But it’s hers, something that seemed far out of reach when she was homeless six years ago.

“This is home to me. It’s a community here. I don’t know where I would be if it weren’t for this place,” the 54-year-old said.

Wade and 29 others live at Huston Commons apartments in Portland. One of the state’s initial “housing first” communities, it gives people who struggled with long-term chronic homelessness a place to live without pre-conditions such as clean credit histories, references or security deposits. And the apartments come with support services, such as 24-hour onsite caseworkers, food pantries and access to counselors or employment training.

A bill that would infuse $13 million a year into a plan to expand the housing-first strategy statewide is a major priority of Democratic leaders, including the bill’s sponsor, House Speaker Rachel Talbot Ross, Gov. Janet Mills and Senate President Troy Jackson. If successful, they say it could get hundreds of people who are trapped in long-term homelessness out of crowded shelters and makeshift camps and into stable homes.

Michael Fern, Maine Senate Republicans’ spokesman, said the party hasn’t taken a position on the housing bill. With Democrats in full control of Maine state government, the bill could pass without Republican support.

Housing advocates, developers and government officials say the legislation could be transformative in the effort to alleviate Maine’s homeless problem. Future housing-first developments could be located in many areas of the state, from Portland to Bangor, Waterville, Lewiston and Augusta. Smaller-scale developments could be completed in rural areas as well.


“If done right, this could end chronic homelessness in Maine. It’s a big deal,” said Cullen Ryan, executive director of Community Housing of Maine, a Portland-based nonprofit that serves vulnerable populations, including 183 formerly homeless people in housing-first projects scattered throughout the state. “We should see tremendous success with this, a noticeable reduction in tent cities and people sleeping on the streets.”

Rebecca Hatfield, president and CEO of Avesta Housing, a nonprofit housing developer that built Huston Commons, said a consistent funding stream by the state will help get more housing-first projects across the finish line. Avesta also developed Florence House and Logan Place, which are housing-first communities in Portland. The three properties are staffed and managed by nonprofit Preble Street.

“We have a very urgent homelessness crisis,” Hatfield said. “L.D. 2 (the housing-first bill) would bring some critical funding that doesn’t currently exist in any other program.”

Hatfield said there are funding sources for the development of affordable housing and federal rent subsidies through the Section 8 program to help pay for operating costs, but there’s no dedicated funding available for the support services that chronically homeless people need once they are housed.

“It’s the critical missing piece of the three-piece pie,” Hatfield said. “Right now, you have to cobble the funding together for supportive services.”

The exterior of Huston Commons in Portland, a housing-first community that offers permanent living with support services for people who are chronically homeless. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

The current waiting list for the three Portland properties – Huston Commons, Logan Place and Florence House – is about 200 applicants. But Hatfield said Avesta is geared up to build more if the bill is approved.


“If this were passed, we are ready and willing to build more housing-first developments,” Hatfield said. “We’re not limited to Greater Portland. We are happy to build in other towns and municipalities as needed.”

Steve Berg, chief policy officer for the Washington D.C.-based National Alliance to End Homelessness, said that if the measure were enacted, Maine would be one of the first states to embrace housing first on a statewide basis. Only Washington state currently has a large-scale program in place, although some cities, such as Houston and New Orleans, prioritize the housing-first model.

“The main barrier has always been scale. Are you providing enough housing to really solve the problem?” Berg said. “The idea is to fund a program to reach as many people as possible, to provide them with what they need to not be homeless.”

The idea that providing permanent housing will act as a magnet, drawing homeless people from other states, is a persistent myth, Berg said. Chronically homeless people are not a mobile population, he said, and they largely come from whatever local area that they are living in.

In Maine, about 400 people are chronically homeless, according to MaineHousing, an independent state agency that invests about $300 million each year in private and public funding for various affordable-housing programs. Many more people than that are homeless – an estimated 4,000 – but most only need shelter for shorter periods while chronically homeless people need extensive services to stay housed.

Some people designated as being chronically homeless manage to find housing and temporarily leave shelters or campsites but struggle to hold onto those and end up homeless again.


Tom Ptacek, a first-shift caseworker at Huston Commons in Portland, works at the front desk. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

Wade said she estimates that she was homeless at least three times since 2010 before getting into Huston Commons when it opened in April 2017.

“I remember waiting for the shelters, all the drugs around you and the filth. I couldn’t stand it,” Wade said.

Huston Commons, a well-maintained six-year-old building off Forest Avenue, has a modern, bright lobby with a seating area, a front desk staffed by caseworkers 24 hours a day and a large common kitchen area and lounge. Each of the small furnished studio apartments has its own bathroom and kitchen.

It also has a food pantry, and residents share regular community meals and have the opportunity to participate in group activities like stargazing and art nights.

The community kitchen area at Huston Commons in Portland. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

One benefit of launching the housing-first program is that chronically homeless individuals are a “limited and finite group of people, so we don’t expect that we will need to be constantly producing more housing-first projects,” said Erik Jorgensen, senior director of government relations for MaineHousing.

The initiative will also likely save money in other areas. A 2015 study done for Community Housing of Maine showed that housing first saves money – an average annual cost savings of about $5,852 per person – savings attributed to lower use of emergency services.


Research on housing-first models shows that the programs are effective at keeping people housed, according to an analysis of decades of research published in 2020 in the American Journal of Public Health. In one of the more extensive studies – tracking outcomes in five cities in Canada – it found that housing first kept 73% of people who were previously homeless in housing, compared with 32% not in housing-first programs. But the analysis also noted that housing first did not appear to result in improved health outcomes – including substance-use disorders – for the residents in the programs.

Housing first does not aim to house all homeless people, but rather people who chronically experience homelessness.

The 4,000 or so homeless people statewide includes those who might couch surf at a friend’s house for two months, or people who stay in an overnight shelter for a day or a week and then get back on their feet. The chronically homeless population is defined by the federal government as those who spent the previous 12 months homeless, or who were homeless at least four times in the previous three years, adding up to a total of at least 12 months of being homeless over the previous three years.

Ryan of Community Housing of Maine said that as people obtain permanent supportive housing, the number of people living in tent cities, sleeping in alleyways or needing overnight shelters should decline.

Ali Lovejoy, vice president of mission advancement for Preble Street, talks about the support services that are provided to residents of Huston Commons. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

Ali Lovejoy, vice president of mission advancement for Preble Street, which provides services for homeless people, said the bill, if approved, would be a game changer. Some chronically homeless people have such acute long-term health problems that they may only live for a few more years, but they get to do so with dignity. Others may recover to the point that they don’t need the supportive housing anymore.

Lovejoy said helping 400 or more chronically homeless people get stable housing and services should open up space at the overnight shelters and other programs to help people who are temporarily homeless.


For chronically homeless people, the 24/7 services are what help them avoid the cycle of returning to the streets, Lovejoy said.

“So much of what happens – for instance, crisis intervention – occurs after normal business hours,” Lovejoy said. Other services include helping tenants fill out paperwork for an array of resources.

Jorgensen said that to jump-start projects, some of the money could be used for construction, but eventually the $13 million per year would go entirely toward supportive services. Other resources and incentives can help subsidize the construction piece.

Housing advocates are not in complete agreement about how to structure the program. Ryan said the bill should have the flexibility to serve homeless people who need services sometimes but not 24/7.

Ryan said some people may only need 20-40 hours of support per week, and allowing projects to provide those services rather than 24/7 services will stretch state dollars further. It would also make small projects – say 4 to 10 people in a small apartment building – more feasible.

But Hatfield, of Avesta Housing, said the most proven model for chronically homeless people is the 24/7 services model, and she believes the bill should stay focused on housing that population, and that other bills could serve people who are homeless but don’t need extensive services.


The three Avesta housing-first projects in Portland – Florence House, Logan Place and Huston Commons – have an 89% success rate in keeping people housed over a five-year period.

The housing-first initiative is one of many proposals being considered by a special committee set up to address a range of problems fueled by Maine’s rental housing shortage.

One such bill could also help reduce homelessness by increasing the supply of housing that workers and lower-income renters could afford. The bill would devote $100 million per year for the next two years to build affordable housing. Another bill would start a $5.5 million per year voucher program for homeless students.

Wade, the Huston Commons resident, said she knows she’s fortunate to be one of the first in Maine to get into a housing-first program.

She’s been able to see doctors and receive good care for her numerous chronic health conditions. And she loves cooking large meals for her neighbors in the complex. A community room by the lobby features a large kitchen for communal meals. A sign near her stove says “Love, Laugh, Gather Together.”

“I’m so grateful,” said Wade, originally from Lynn, Massachusetts. “I can look out the window now and if it’s snowing in the winter, it looks pretty. But I don’t have to be out in it if I don’t want to. I don’t have to be out in the cold.”

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