Richard Compagnon, the shelter manager at the Mid-Maine Homeless Shelter at 19 Colby St. in Waterville, points to items the organization provides for those who need them, even if they do not stay at the shelter. Maine’s homeless crisis has left many of the state’s shelters in financial straits. Without more funding, some, including the shelter in Waterville, could be forced to close this year. Anna Chadwick/Morning Sentinel

WATERVILLE — Homelessness in Maine surged during the COVID-19 pandemic and has not stopped since. While some of the state’s shelters have expanded to meet growing demand, heavy workloads and subsequent financial strain have forced others to close. Those still operating say they might soon follow suit.

Particularly at risk are two of the state’s five low-barrier shelters, which admit individuals regardless of their sobriety, mental health status or criminal history with the goal of providing immediate refuge and necessities to those experiencing homelessness.

Low-barrier shelters make up the bottom of the safety net, providing not only a place to stay but an array of services. Without additional funding, however, shelters in Waterville and Bangor could be forced to close this year, leaving Maine without any low-barrier shelters outside of Portland.

The Maine Legislature and Mills administration have made historic investments in recent years in services and programs for the unhoused, and in housing in general. It has not been enough, however, to abate the crisis of affordable housing that has left a record number of Mainers without stable shelter.

Lawmakers are set to return Friday to the State House in Augusta for what might be the final opportunity to save a number of the state’s homeless shelters, including those in Waterville and Bangor.

If those shelters close, advocates say, people who would otherwise sleep at a shelter would likely have nowhere to go, except back onto the streets. They would also lose access to the array of services each organization provides, leaving many unhoused people without rent assistance, warm meals, drug rehabilitation programs and more.


Mark Swann, the executive director of Preble Street, which runs two low-barrier shelters in Portland and provides other services to the unhoused, says the opioid epidemic, COVID-19 pandemic and housing crisis have changed the nature of homelessness in recent years. “It’s been a perfect storm, sadly, in creating more of a need than we’ve ever had before,” he says. Sun Journal file


Advocates say homelessness is the result of a combination of personal circumstances and broader societal crises that have worsened since the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I think a combination of the opioid epidemic and the COVID crisis has changed the work we do and the need for the services,” said Mark Swann, executive director of Preble Street, an organization that runs two low-barrier shelters in Portland and provides other services to the unhoused. “I think the combination of those two things, and then housing costs and gentrification — it’s been a perfect storm, sadly, in creating more of a need than we’ve ever had before.”

The median price of a home in Maine is higher than ever, increasing more than 200% over the past decade to about $360,000 in 2023. Meanwhile, Maine’s median income has risen much more slowly, reaching $70,000 last year.

The state is also facing a severe housing shortage, with a study last year finding Maine needs to build 84,000 homes over the next six years to accommodate a growing population.

Those factors have combined to create a housing market that is pricing out vulnerable, low-income residents, said Katie Spencer White, CEO of the Mid-Maine Homeless Shelter & Services in Waterville, one of the shelters struggling to stay open.


“Maine is at an inflection point where we have more and more people who are not able to afford rent anywhere in the state,” she said. “I totally understand when you can’t find an affordable apartment in Camden or Portland, but when we get to where you can’t find an affordable apartment in Augusta, or Waterville, or Skowhegan, that’s a problem.”

As a result, Maine’s shelters have become the net catching people struggling with all sorts of problems, according to Spencer White.

The Waterville organization provides service for more than 300 people a year and operates about 60 beds each night. Each of the people it serves, Spencer White says, is there for a different reason and requires unique attention.

Linda Owens, who stays at the Mid-Maine Homeless Shelter at 19 Colby St. in Waterville, wipes cabinets Wednesday in the shelter’s kitchen. Anna Chadwick/Morning Sentinel

“It’s a lot of seniors on fixed incomes and a lot of folks with disabilities,” she said. “It’s people with substance abuse disorder, mental illness and criminal histories. It’s a lot of different people who all have their own reasons for coming into our shelters.”

Shelters are doing what they can to serve the unhoused people who come through their doors. But it is the lack of affordable housing that is forcing so many people to seek out their help, and pushing their budgets into the red.

“That’s a problem that’s bigger than we can solve,” Spencer White said. “It’s not just about shelter funding. We’ve got more clients than we can ever possibly serve. We need to address the reasons why.”



The biggest hurdle all homeless shelters face is they do not make money.

Unlike hospitals, ambulances and other frontline service providers, shelters do not charge their clients for services, and they do not receive reimbursement from insurance companies. Many rely on private fundraising and philanthropy to stay afloat.

That hurdle is even higher for low-barrier shelters, which are much more expensive to run because of the significant challenges faced by their clients, Swann said.

“I think all shelters in Maine — domestic violence shelters, family shelters — struggle, for sure,” he said. “I think the difference with low-barrier shelters is that the costs are higher to run a low-barrier shelter than to run a general shelter, and that’s because the population we serve has higher needs.”

Shelter employees must be trained in first aid, including CPR and use of an automated external defibrillator, or AED. They are also trained to build rapport with residents, de-escalate conflicts and administer Narcan to reverse overdoses, often doing so several times a week.


And like other businesses across Maine, the state’s shelters have been battered by the rising costs of labor, gasoline, rent and more, Spencer White said.

Katie Spencer White

“What a lot of folks don’t realize is that we’re a business, and so we have the same costs to operate that any business does,” she said. “Costs have gone up post-pandemic, and there’s no one to pass that cost on to. Revenues have stayed flat, but the costs have gone up significantly, like every other business. You can’t pay people $11 an hour. They need a livable wage.”

As a result of these issues, Maine’s five low-barrier shelters operate at a significant deficit each year.

The Mid-Maine Homeless Shelter has an annual budget of about $2 million, Spencer White said. The shelter at 19 Colby St. in Waterville receives less than $300,000 annually in federal funding and relies of philanthropy, grants and fundraising to make up the difference. Spencer White said 77% of its budget is raised through private, often small-dollar donations.

While Kennebec County and the city of Waterville each gave the shelter $200,000 in one-time funding in February, Spencer White says the money will only sustain the shelter for a few months, and the facility will close before year’s end without immediate assistance.

At Hope House, a low-barrier shelter in Bangor, the situation is even more dire. The 56-bed shelter is the state’s second largest and operates a deficit of about $800,000 each year. It will close in October without sustained funding from the state, according to Lori Dwyer, president and CEO of Penobscot Community Health Care, which owns the shelter.


In written testimony before the Maine Legislature, Dwyer said that years of stagnant funding and increasing demand have prompted Hope House and many other shelters to consider closing for good. Each year, she said, Maine’s shelters operate at a cumulative deficit of nearly $4 million.

“The cumulative impact of years of flat funding has led to this point,” Dwyer said. “Hope House is a high-functioning, professional shelter with a long history of innovation and commitment to the community. Without a designated, ongoing revenue stream, we simply cannot do it anymore.”


The Legislature this year considered a number of bills related to homeless shelter funding. Ultimately, the Democrat-led appropriations committee allocated $2.5 million annually for shelters in the supplemental budget, which also includes funding for affordable housing development and rent relief meant to make homelessness less likely.

The money provides a small lifeline, but shelter providers around the state say it is simply not enough.

In testimony before the Legislature, Dwyer of Bangor’s Hope House said the funding will not keep the shelter’s doors open, and will cover only 60% of the annual $4 million deficit racked up by low-barrier shelters statewide each year.


When lawmakers return to the State House on Friday to consider vetoes from Gov. Janet Mills, they could also decide to fund additional bills, including L.D. 2136, which would provide significant ongoing funding to low-barrier shelters, though that appears a long shot.

Greg Payne, Maine’s senior housing policy adviser, says the state has heard their concerns and is working to increase funding for low-barrier and other homeless shelters.

Greg Payne, the senior adviser on housing policy for Gov. Janet Mills, says the state plans to use funds from the opioid settlement to help pay for the operation of homeless shelters. Portland Press Herald file

In addition to the $2.5 million for low-barrier shelters, Payne said the state plans to provide millions more in additional funding from the money Maine will receive as part of the nationwide opioid settlement. Maine is to receive about $235 million over the next 20 years or so.

Some of that money should go to shelters because of how involved they are with the state’s opioid epidemic, Payne said. He said he is optimistic the funds could close the funding gap for low-barrier shelters, in conjunction with the $2.5 million that low-barrier shelters now receive annually.

He said the state also hopes to reduce the burden on all shelters by developing housing units as quickly as possible through revamped zoning laws, new developments and additional funding for communities.

“While we’re kind of focusing on increasing housing supply,” Payne said, “the most painful consequence of not having enough homes in the meantime is that homelessness is a virtual inevitability. And if we’re not making sure people are inside and getting support, things are a whole lot worse than they otherwise would be.”


In the meantime, shelter operators are waiting to see if help will arrive in time.

Spencer White says the funding approved so far is a good first step, but it is far from what is needed to really help her shelter and many others. She said it will sustain them for only a few months at best.

If nothing more comes through soon, she said, several shelters will be forced to close in the next few months.

“Without funding for Maine’s shelters,” Spencer White wrote in a Morning Sentinel op-ed this week, “far too many Mainers will literally be left out in the cold.”

(Editor’s note: The annual budget deficit of the Hope House is $800,000. An earlier version of this story had an incorrect amount. It was a reporting error.)

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