AUGUSTA — Housing for the increasing number of people in need is scarce in Augusta, and the problem is only expected to get worse as winter approaches, the pandemic continues and a ban on some evictions is due to expire.
That was the message from city staff as well as leaders of nonprofit groups, who told the Augusta City Council on Thursday they are getting swamped with calls for help from homeless or potentially homeless people. They expect that need for help to continue to increase as people out of work or getting limited hours due to the coronavirus pandemic are falling behind on rent and could be evicted at the end of the year.
A state ban on evictions for tenants out of work due to the coronavirus expires at the end of the year.
Katy Childs, managing attorney of Pine Tree Legal’s Augusta office, said there has already been a flood of evictions since the court system reopened and a Maine fund providing rental assistance expired.
“We are now seeing that flood of evictions; since the courts reopened in August we’re seeing the effect on our clients,” Childs said. “The wave we were expecting is here, and we expect it will get much worse.”
Mayor David Rollins agreed to a proposal from Ward 4 Councilor Eric Lind to form a task force, which Lind and Courtney Yeager, executive director of the Kennebec Valley United Way, will lead, to work on the problem.
Yeager said one thing that needs to change is how area agencies, municipalities and others work together to help people find housing.
“There are so many nonprofit programs … to whom people are turning for help, and not all of us are communicating,” Yeager said, describing some people in need of help having to try multiple places for help, maybe getting $100 toward rent from different groups. She said those working to help people in need of housing need a more coordinated approach, rather than sticking people in hotels to solve the problem only for the short-term.
“I believe we can all be working together more efficiently,” she said. “We’ve got to change how we do this.”
Lind said the city has both a short-term need to help homeless people find housing, but also needs a more coordinated approach to fix the problem longer term.
Leif Dahlin, director of community services and welfare director for the city, said there is little to no rental housing available for residents in need who come to the city for general assistance-funded help. With nearly no apartments available for residents, the city instead turns to boarding rooms. But those are scarce now, too, and the city is increasingly placing most new general assistance users in hotels.
Out of 74 clients currently receiving general assistance housing help, 37 are in boarding houses, 15 in rental apartments and 22 in hotels. The city has a total of 95 general assistance receivers, 74 of whom are provided housing vouchers.
Dahlin noted housing for general assistance clients must pass an inspection of its habitability by the city’s codes office and accept the amount of money the city will provide in rent. Both of these requirements limit the number of units available to general assistance clients.
Dahlin said 66 of the clients receiving housing vouchers are local, four are from out of town, and four are from out of state. He said some of them have lost employment due to the pandemic.
He said shelters, which are operated by Bread of Life Ministries, have some space but generally very limited capacity day to day. To live in the local shelter applicants must be COVID negative and pass a background check.
City Manager William Bridgeo, in an update to councilors sent before the meeting, said the ongoing coronavirus “pandemic has and will increase the incidence of human need in our community. We are seeing it in our General Assistance offices, in reports from human services agencies throughout the city, and in media reports chronicling the challenges so many residents are experiencing related to meeting housing and other basic household costs.”
He said the city is housing a family of nine, in three hotel rooms.
He said using child care workers, the Boys and Girls Club and Civic Center workers the city has provided thousands of free meals to those in need. He said city officials have worked collaboratively with agencies like the Augusta Food Bank on community distribution programs and with the Capital Area New Mainers program, the United Way and other agencies on housing and homeless programs.
The issue came up after Lind asked for an update, from city officials, on the status of low-income housing needs and concerns in Augusta. Representatives of nonprofits which provide services to poor people in Augusta learned of the coming discussion and expressed interest in taking part in the conversation, Bridgeo said. The representatives hope the discussion will lead to a joint effort to address what Bridgeo described as “what is shaping up to be a critical situation in our community.”
Dahlin said the city is reimbursed, by the state, for 70% of its general assistance costs.