Maine, like many other parts of the country and the world at the moment, has two options open to it when it comes to tackling homelessness.

Dickey-Wood Dormitory at the University of Southern Maine’s Gorham campus, which some housing advocates have suggested using as a temporary shelter. Though it’s not necessarily a straightforward path out – USM says it could cost $40 million to renovate – it is an example of how officials and advocates have been bringing creativity and flexibility to bear as they consider how to help people who have nowhere to go. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Our state can wait for sufficient permanent housing to gradually come together, leaving people’s lives to hang in the balance until that’s achieved.

Or we can pursue that long-term goal while rising to this challenging occasion in a mix of ways – many of them more minor or experimental than what we’re used to – so that the most damaging effects of the crisis are kept at bay.

What does that interim part look like?

Consider one of the takeaways from a meeting of the Augusta City Council last week: that private property owners are free to host homeless campers for up to four months. City officials were responding to the plight of roughly 20 residents who had been housed in a warming shelter that has closed for the season.

This type of clarification sends an important message about the role community responsibility and lateral thinking have in helping our state through the homelessness crisis. Is this an airtight solution? No. But it recognizes that Maine must bring as much flexibility as possible to its efforts to help those in need of shelter.


In response to the suggestion that a committee could be formed to determine how best to help people in Augusta who have nowhere to go, at-large Councilor Courtney Gary-Allen put the need for prompt, practical action well: “I think committees are where things go to die,” she said. “But if someone could please provide me with a list of places where people can put up their tents Monday morning at 7 a.m., that’d be great.”

Another good example of thinking outside the box surfaced a few days later in Portland, where a meeting of a group of advocates for the homeless, social workers and government representatives entertained the idea of converting unused college real estate into temporary shelter space.

Much like the stopgap of private residential camping in the summer months, a move like this is not a straightforward path out. The unused university space identified would in many cases require millions of dollars in refurbishment to bring it up to scratch. But those at the meeting noted that even a disused dining hall carried some potential. The group voted unanimously to send a request to state officials asking them to investigate the idea.

In order to weather this crisis, new ideas will be vital.

New ideas, and the collective courage to push them forward – too often, fear plays an outsized role in this decision-making. People say they are concerned by the homelessness crisis, but a very small fraction of that group would OK an encampment in their neighborhood, let alone open up their own property to a homeless person or group of people.

In Augusta, for example, the private property permission was highlighted after officials there balked at the idea of a city-established campsite, citing concerns that homeless people would flock to it from other states (“I just am scared to death this may snowball and get larger,” one councilor was quoted as saying). In other words, officials recognized the gravity of the need and the plausibility of the solution but chose to pass up a good idea because they didn’t want to be the first to do it.


The clearing of more than 80 tents from the Bayside Trail encampment in Portland last week exhibited stop-start thinking without much of an outcome beyond sweeping the area clear. Outgoing residents of the encampment told reporters that they had nowhere to go, and that where they could go was on foot and not very far from where they had been.

As long as Maine’s towns and cities keep holding off on creative or even piecemeal near-term interventions, the response to chronic homelessness will remain weak and disjointed. The risk, real or perceived, of creating imbalance or being somehow exploited overnight, will continue inhibiting the kind of swift, commonsense solutions that can restore some semblance of structure, order and, ideally, dignity to our homeless populations.

In cities across America right now, sanctioned camps are being managed as part of plans to eventually rule camping out altogether, rightly treated as temporary steps toward permanent housing. A single sanctioned encampment may indeed not make a difference. A network of them is better than a network of unsanctioned encampments.

Introducing things like effective waste management, medical tents, sanitation stations and storage space is no substitute for introducing housing. But we can’t let fear of decision-making, or fear of each other, continue to push our communities down a far, far more fearsome road.

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