Committee advances bill to address chronic homelessness

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May 2—The Legislature's Joint Select Committee on Housing is recommending passage of a bill that would devote more than $13 million a year to provide supported, stable housing for people who have been homeless for long periods.

It's the most significant bill advanced to date by the special committee formed by legislative Democrats this session to tackle the state's housing crisis.

"There are anywhere from 400- to 700-plus people who are experiencing, at some level, chronic homelessness," said Sen. Teresa Pierce, D-Falmouth, who leads the committee. "We see this as transformational legislation that is going to have a lasting impact on our ability to keep people in the shelter, safe and warm and allow them to move forward with their lives."

L.D. 2, sponsored by House Speaker Rachel Talbot Ross, D-Portland, would pay for support services offered as part of so-called housing-first programs.

Housing first emerged in the 1990s as a cost-effective way to reduce homelessness. It focuses on providing stable housing to people who have been chronically homeless and providing staffing and support services to keep them housed by addressing underlying conditions that contribute to that homelessness, such as substance use, mental health issues, legal problems or past trauma. The nonprofit organization Preble Street manages three such housing-first apartment buildings in Portland.

Traditional support services more often involve temporary shelters and require people who are chronically homeless to address those underlying issues before they can find stable housing, which advocates say is a significant barrier.

"Every human being deserves to be treated with dignity and respect, and that means safe shelter and having their basic needs met," Talbot Ross said in a written statement. "LD 2 will both provide vital compassionate care while providing a marked reduction in emergency crisis services providing a tremendous benefit to the community at large."

The bill defines chronic homelessness as someone living in a place not suitable for human habitation, including emergency shelters, for at least 12 months, and people people living intermittently in an institution, such as a jail or medical facility.

The bill would devote about half of the revenue generated by the real estate transfer tax, which would otherwise go to the general fund, to support services in housing-first developments that provide 24-hour on-site support services. That's estimated to be $13 million next year. It would allocate another $1 million a year to support services at sites scattered through a community.

The bill, recommended by a 8-2 committee vote, also creates two new positions in the Department of Health and Human Services to administer the program.

Pierce said Rep. Dick Campbell, R-Orrington, and Rep. Richard Bradstreet, R-Vassalboro, voted on an amended version of the bill that does not include the additional DHHS positions.

The bill, which is supported by Gov. Janet Mills and Democrats, who control both chambers, faces additional votes in the Legislature.