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Maine legislature will take up several housing bills, though none about encampment sweeps

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Maine legislature will take up several housing bills, though none about encampment sweeps

Nov 29, 2023 | 5:01 am ET
By AnnMarie Hilton
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Maine legislature will take up several housing bills, though none about encampment sweeps
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Someone's bedroll left in the doorway of a building in downtown Biddeford, Maine. (Maine Morning Star)

Out of the 100 bills that the legislature will take up in the session that starts in January, seven pertain to housing or addressing the homelessness crisis. 

This accounts for fewer than half of the 20 housing related bills the legislative council voted on to determine whether they would be introduced as emergency bills in the upcoming short session.

While the text of the bills isn’t available yet, their titles give insight into their purpose.

Maine is facing a housing crisis with an immediate need for 38,500 additional housing units and another 38,000 to 46,000 to meet demand by 2030. During the last legislative session, there was a special joint committee created to focus on housing, specifically looking at affordable housing and the state’s growing homelessness crisis. 

At an affordable housing conference in Portland in October, state Sen. Teresa Pierce (D-Cumberland), who chairs the committee, said, “This is the housing moment.”

As long as we try to fund these complex social services for our hardest to serve individuals with the highest needs through private philanthropy, through bake sales…I can't make payroll.

– Katie Spencer White, Mid-Maine Homeless Shelter

Homeless shelters have been underfunded for decades, said Katie Spencer White, president and CEO of Mid-Maine Homeless Shelter in Waterville, but “the wheels have really come off the bus since the pandemic.”

That’s why Spencer White, who also sits on the Statewide Homeless Council, is “ecstatic” about three bills that will be taken up focused on increasing funding and access to shelters. One is specifically about prohibiting municipalities from enforcing moratoria on emergency shelters.

It takes $100 a day to operate each of the 60 beds at the Mid-Maine Homeless Shelter, one of the few low-barrier shelters in the state, accepting people regardless of their sobriety, mental health conditions or criminal history, Spencer White said. The last two legislative sessions had additional funding from pandemic relief money — including $12 million in one-time funding for fiscal year 2024-25 — but Spencer White said the shelter still has to raise at least 70% of the dollars it takes to provide services.

These housing bills were accepted by the Legislative Council as emergency legislation for the upcoming short session:

Bills addressing homelessness

Costs have only risen over the past few years, and state support hasn’t kept pace. From 2018 to 2023, Spencer White said her payroll increased by $1.2 million. The shelter’s website lists 19 shelter attendants and 20 people on the management and support staff teams.

“As long as we try to fund these complex social services for our hardest to serve individuals with the highest needs through private philanthropy, through bake sales…I can’t make payroll,” she said.

And Spencer White isn’t alone. Penobscot Community Health Care, which runs two shelters in Bangor, announced earlier this month it’s looking for a partner to take over its low-barrier shelter because of financial losses from unsteady funding amid increased need.

The three shelter-related bills create an opportunity to work with policymakers on creative, innovative solutions and “come up with ways to address the crisis that has emerged in Maine in a way that is tailor-made to meet our needs and to meet this moment,” Spencer White said.

One aspect of homelessness that won’t be addressed this session is the use of encampment sweeps to discourage people from camping in public. Neither the two bills that called to end the practice, nor the one that sought to address encampments in another way, survived the legislative council. Cities in Maine have turned to sweeps multiple times in the past year to address their growing population of unhoused people, but they have faced criticism from advocates and some residents who call them a form of “violence.” 

Other housing bills to be taken up

Based on their titles, the other four housing bills relate to access. 

They include creating workforce housing, improving the voucher system, strengthening veterans’ homes and accelerating the production of housing. That last bill also mentions strengthening the Maine historic property rehabilitation tax credit. 

Bills that were rejected

More than a dozen housing-related bills didn’t make the cut. 

In addition to bills pertaining to sweeps, others left on the cutting room floor included assistance for people with high rents and increasing support for first-time homebuyers.

There were a couple of bills with broad titles that were also rejected, including one called “An Act to Increase Housing Options in Maine” and another titled “An Act to Address Maine’s Affordable Housing Crisis.”

Often, Spencer White said, she hears people say they want more state intervention on housing issues and the homelessness crisis. 

The bills now on the table have the potential to provide much-needed support, she said, but those proposals are what is locked in for the next session. For people who want to see more being done, Spencer White noted that there’s a set timeline and schedule to propose new bills, so they should start laying the groundwork soon.

“We’re not going to get another bite of this cherry and have to tell our legislators what we want them to do, the problems we want them to fix for another year, 12 months,” Spencer White said. 

She said those who want to see more change need to start having those conversations in early 2024, she said. Start mapping out strengths, weaknesses and goals, “so we can get ready for the next full session in 2025 and tell our legislatures what we want them to do,” Spencer White said.