2018-02-01 / News

Homeless should be considered despite development

By Grant McPherson Staff Writer


The York County Military Community Network parked its mobile vet center outside Seeds of Hope Neighborhood Center on South Street Thursday, Jan. 25. From left, Dan Bricker, Kelly Perry of the Sanford Vet Center and Todd Diadore of Volunteers of America organize supplies and hand out sleeping bags and warm clothes to homeless and veterans who need them. Volunteers from Preble Street Resource Center were also present Thursday to help distribute items and conduct surveys. (Grant McPherson photo) The York County Military Community Network parked its mobile vet center outside Seeds of Hope Neighborhood Center on South Street Thursday, Jan. 25. From left, Dan Bricker, Kelly Perry of the Sanford Vet Center and Todd Diadore of Volunteers of America organize supplies and hand out sleeping bags and warm clothes to homeless and veterans who need them. Volunteers from Preble Street Resource Center were also present Thursday to help distribute items and conduct surveys. (Grant McPherson photo) BIDDEFORD – A multitude of organizations came together to survey homeless individuals in the community to better understand the scope of the situation and apply for funding from the federal government.

The York County Military Community Network parked its mobile vet center outside Seeds of Hope Neighborhood Center on South Street Thursday, Jan. 25. Volunteers helped distribute non-perishable food, winter clothing, sleeping bags, lanterns, hats, gloves and scarves to those who are sleeping outside, in their cars or couch surfing. Volunteers also conducted the fourth annual Point-in-Time Homeless Survey, the results of which will be sent to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. The information gathered will ensure that York County receives an equitable amount of resources relative to its homeless population. Individuals were also surveyed at two other locations in Biddeford and Sanford the day before.

The Rev. Shirley Bowen, executive director and chaplain at Seeds of Hope, said the surveys are integral to understanding and addressing the homeless situation in Biddeford.

“We try to get a handle on what the actual numbers of folks living outside are and then we try to be as responsive as we can as far as advocating for services,” she said. “For folks who are camping outside in really cold weather, we work with other organizations to try to get someone inside and that might include paying for a motel for a night. The good news was when we had those really cold nights a few weeks ago, we went around and talked to everyone and everyone had a couch to sleep on. That’s not always the case.”

Bowen said once the results from this year’s survey are compiled, she will work with Maine Housing Authority and Housing and Urban Development to better understand what the homelessness trend in York County has been for the past four years.

Factors that lead to homelessness are varied Bowen said, and often out of an individual’s control.

“So many of the neighbors we serve are just a crisis away from being homeless,” she said. “If someone loses their job or if someone has a medical emergency it interferes with their ability to work. There are people who work and still don’t make enough money to come up with a security deposit and first month’s rent. There is a considerable affordable housing shortage in Biddeford. Even if they do have money, finding affordable housing is getting harder and harder. So there are folks who may be coming out of incarceration or coming out of other situational events where they may have had housing and then don’t. There are a number of different scenarios to make that happen.”

In the case of Eleanor Cooley, three major surgeries due to an infected colon and multiple hernias caused so much nerve pain she was unable to continue working at Bob and Mike’s on Elm Street in Saco. Shortly thereafter she was unable to pay for her house and had to stay with her sister and son. Three months ago however, the 60-year-old was forced to start living in her car, as she was unable to continue staying with friends and family.

“I never expected to be in this situation,” she said. “I worked all my life. It’s really awful. You don’t expect it to happen to you. I don’t drink, do drugs or smoke. I used to say that people were homeless because they didn’t want to work but I’m in that boat now.”

Cooley’s husband died more than 20 years ago and she receives his social security on a monthly basis, but still can’t find an affordable place for rent in the area. Originally from Saco, Cooley lived in Old Orchard Beach for the past 30 years.

“I’m so used to being independent,” she said. “My husband died when I was 39. Now I have to depend on other people and I can’t stand it. I hate it.”

Linda Waters, Biddeford community development coordinator, said that the city receives $446,500 annually from Housing and Urban Development under the Community Development Block Grant Entitlement Program. That money is used to fund housing, social services, infrastructure, parks and economic development throughout the city. Waters has begun work on a new five-year consolidated plan that will outline goals, strategies, projects and activities that the city would like Housing and Urban Development to help fund. The results of this year’s homeless survey will be included in the year one action plan of the five-year plan. Waters said she expects to have the results of the survey back from Housing and Urban Development in May.

“Biddeford does consider couch surfing homeless, Housing and Urban Development does not” she said. “We want to know. When we do the survey we see people working part time who have transportation issues, mental illness or physical disabilities. Some are victims of domestic violence. A lot of people have issues that cause them to be homeless. We need people working in service jobs but they don’t make enough for first and last month’s rent plus a deposit.”

Bowen is also concerned that, while the continued economic growth of the city is important, the less privileged members of the city will be forgotten.

“I’m very worried,” she said. “I’m really excited about and supportive of the work Biddeford is doing to bring economic development to the community. At the same time, because so many people we serve don’t have cars, I’m very worried about people being pushed to the outer edges of the community where there might be more affordable housing. That could have the consequence of alienating them or isolating them because of not being able to get into town and access the many services.

“What I hear from our neighbors, just one particular example, is if somebody has a job at Market Basket or LongHorn Steakhouse or Michaels craft store, if you work the second shift you don’t get out of work until nine or 10 at night. The bus isn’t running, so people’s options become limited on where they could work. They either have to walk huge distances or have to use a taxi which is incredibly expensive.”

Bowen said the city has been responsive to her concerns, but she said it’s important to consider the big picture when making decisions that affect the downtown. Bowen volunteered to serve on the Strategic Planning Steering Committee, formed in 2016, and said her fellow committee members were willing to listen to her concerns about Biddeford’s “under-sourced” population. She said it’s difficult for people who have never experienced homelessness to understand how it affects people.

“I am learning regularly about what it means to be a person of privilege,” she said. “Things that I don’t even think about doing or have access to are for many people a luxury. That’s really part of our mission, to advocate for and bring into people’s lexicon things that they never thought about before.”

As for Cooley, she’s far from giving up. She’ll continue to spend time at Seeds of Hope while she figures out her next step. But she hasn’t let her circumstances get the best of her.

“I am a very positive person,” she said. “I try to stay that way. My sister says to me, ‘I don’t know how you can smile.’ I just think things will get better. I don’t say they can’t get any worse, because they do. This is a great place to come to. We do not have enough of them around.”

Contact Staff Writer Grant McPherson at news@inthecourier.com

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