Shannon Bentley of the SPD’s Mental Health Unit tells the story of Tom, an unhoused man from Sanford, as Sgt. Colleen Adams and OPTIONS Clinician Lacey Bailey look on.
Story and photos by Zendelle Bouchard
At the summit on homelessness in York County held Monday, Dec. 11, state legislators and other local elected officials heard the stories of a few of the people who are currently unhoused in Sanford. The summit, held at the Sanford Performing Arts Center, featured a presentation by members of the Sanford Police Department’s Mental Health Unit, who talked about a few of the individuals they are in contact with who are living in tents or in vehicles around town. The people whose stories were told were identified only by their first names.
Shannon Bentley, the MHU’s Crisis Clinician, spoke about Tom, a former executive chef at five-star restaurants, who owned a home in Sanford and raised his two children as a single father before losing his housing. Tom struggles with multiple sclerosis in addition to substance use disorder. Trying to stay warm outdoors, he barely escaped when his tent caught fire, and he has also been treated for carbon monoxide poisoning due to a heater malfunction. Despite these challenges, Tom greets the MHU with smiles and thanks. He has taken the first step of talking about recovery resources.
Bentley also talked about Rob, who worked in the past as a contractor installing flooring and windows. He has been unable to work since being injured on the job. Rob’s mother would let him live with her, but her housing voucher will not allow it. Since becoming unhoused, his tent, heaters and other necessities have been stolen on multiple occasions. Rob is currently part of an encampment and helps others by cleaning up trash around the encampment and around the City. He said the people who live there share food and water and look out for each other. Rob engages with outreach workers and recovery coaches who stop by.
The story of Tami and Jeff, a couple who had been living in a tent for the past six months, was also shared. They are 55 and 65 years old and both have disabling medical conditions. After losing their housing early this year, they were unable to find an affordable place to live. The day of the summit, their story had a happy ending, when they moved into a Sanford apartment for which they will pay 30 percent of their Social Security income. Read more about Tami and Jeff in Shawn Sullivan’s article on Seacoast Online here.
Lacey Bailey, the York County OPTIONS Clinician who works with the MHU, told the story of Kisska, a mother of two who was born and raised in Wells and now lives in Sanford. Kisska is in recovery from substance use disorder but is battling stage 4 cervical cancer. She is dealing with severe side effects from that treatment. After being in recovery for a year, she got a housing voucher and lived in an apartment for three months before being evicted. Multiple providers who were in contact with Kisska witnessed her stigmatization during that time. Kisska is currently living in a van but plans to move into a camper soon.
In addition to these human stories of homelessness, attendees were provided with sobering statistics of the crisis in the local area. Sgt. Colleen Adams of the MHU presented demographic information on the unhoused in Sanford, Kennebunk, Biddeford and Old Orchard Beach. A slide from the Sanford School Department illustrated the rapid increase in the number of students in the district without stable housing. Bailey talked about the scant options for shelter, recovery and mental health treatment in York County, and the barriers people face to finding and keeping housing.
One of the informational posters on display for the York County Homelessness Summit.
Bentley outlined other factors that have contributed to the crisis, including cuts in MaineCare reimbursement rates which led to the closure of mental health agencies; the skyrocketing cost of housing, food and other necessities; childcare costs that are unmanageable for many, resulting in single parents being unable to work; and short staffing in social service agencies.
Clay Graybeal, Board President of York County Shelter Programs, thanked the legislators who came to the summit, including Sanford’s State Reps Ann Fredericks and Anne-Marie Mastraccio and State Sen. Matt Harrington. Most of the City Council was in attendance as well. Graybeal said his organization has a lot of room for potential expansion of shelter services at its Alfred property but needs more funding as well as exemptions from local zoning restrictions. The funding YCSP receives only covers 35 percent of its operating costs, with the rest being raised through donations.
Carter Friend, Executive Director of York County Community Action Corp., summed up the immediate, short-term and long-term strategies for addressing homelessness in York County. Immediate needs include fully funding existing shelters like YCSP; funding additional warming center capacity; and finding additional funding for General Assistance, utility payments and rental gap payments that will keep people from becoming unhoused this winter. Short-term strategies include funding for expansion of shelter capacity, substance use disorder and mental health treatment, and expanded access to vouchers, as well as providing incentives to landlords to rent to people who have been unhoused. Long-term solutions all involve the creation of more housing, including transitional, workforce and low-income housing, as well as the Housing First model which provides 24/7 supports for those who need them to stay housed. He called the lack of affordable housing “the ultimate root cause” of homelessness.
York County Manager Greg Zinser said the York County Jail is the “de facto mental health institution and the de facto substance use treatment program” for the County in the absence of other options. Currently the county has almost 80 people in the drug treatment and recovery program. He announced that the expansion of the Layman Way Recovery Center is on track and they are hoping for a groundbreaking in late spring of 2024. When completed, the center will have 58 beds for people in various stages of detox and recovery as well as outpatient services.
Biddeford City Manager Jim Bennett wrapped things up by asking legislators to reach out with any questions. “We don’t have all the answers, but we have the will, the heart and the desire to make a difference, and with your help we can do that,” he said.