May 23, 2019

Funding for shelters

Members of the Legislature’s Appropriations Committee were given an extra reason last week to support a proposal to fund the state’s homeless shelters. Five months late, the federal Emergency Shelter Grant arrived from Washington and the numbers aren’t good.

It is no surprise that money due in January is arriving now — the feds usually are months late — or that the amount is less this year than last. During the public funding fight on the issue, Republican leaders defeated a couple of measures that would have returned money to shelters. But the cut to Maine from $859,000 in 1998 to $692,000 now hits particularly hard because the state’s proposed budget flat-funds the shelters after they got their first increase in a decade last year.

Maine’s 38 homeless shelters have three sources of funding that either come from or are passed on by the state: The Emergency Shelter Grant, which is a HUD program; a smaller program called the Shelter Assistance Grant; and the Shelter Operating Subsidy, the state funding in question before Appropriations. The SOS fund is proposed at $1.1 million. LD 2111 would increase the funding to $3.2 million, a level recommended by an interagency task force in 1997.

The need for the increase funding for homeless shelters is evident to anyone who looks at their staffing and pay levels. Long the home of Maine’s mentally ill, shelters are often staffed by a single person per shift who may earn $7 an hour, and so doesn’t stay around for long. The lack of staffing means that, for safety reasons, some shelters will not accept families that have lost housing. Better training for staff or training for the homeless themselves so that they might live independently are impossible without the funding proposed under LD 2111.

State lawmakers were enthusiastic about that kind of funding last year. But, like so many good ideas, the proposal was ignored during the end-of-the-session rush to complete the budget. The same thing could be happening again this year. If it does, if the state flat funds its homeless shelters while the federal government reduces its contribution, Maine, ironically, will be placed on a course of crisis for its most impoverished during one of the longest economic expansions in its history.

This should not be allowed to happen. State government historically has picked up only a tiny percentage of the cost of these shelters, though it is clear that homelessness is a statewide problem that transcends the borders of the communities in which the shelters exist. To dump the problem on these towns is bad policy. To ignore the shelters as they struggle to serve the public invites crisis.

Appropriations is rapidly concluding this session of the Legislature. It has the opportunity to have the state take on a responsibility it should have assumed years ago. With the federal reduction, the need for this becomes even more urgent.

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