With limited family shelter options, Belfast's General Assistance administrator is providing tents and camping gear to people who become homeless. Other locals are collaborating to encourage donations of camping gear as the city wrestles with a shortage of affordable housing and few temporary housing choices. Credit: Jeff Lewis/AP Images for AIDS Healthcare Foundation

When a Belfast single mother found herself behind on rent last month and about to be evicted from her apartment, she reluctantly went to the city and asked for help.

What was available surprised her.

City officials, facing a shortage of affordable housing or shelter options in Waldo County, offered to help her find a tent so she and her two kids could camp out instead of couch surfing or sleeping rough.

“It is a little discouraging to be told that all we have to offer you is a tent,” said Angie, the single mother. “It really is actually blowing my mind, too. I didn’t realize there was such a need.”

There is, according to Belfast General Assistance Administrator Jodie Stout. She said that there is a municipal and state policy that in nice weather, the city can’t put people up in temporary housing such as hotel rooms unless the homeless person has a medical condition. And with many weeks bringing calls from local folks like Angie who are facing eviction or who are homeless and need help, the city wants to do something instead of nothing. Even so, she has had to start a waitlist for people who need tents and other camping gear.

“We have a ton of need right now,” she said.

That’s why she’s glad that some locals have started to use social media to ask for donations of tents, sleeping bags and other camping gear that the city can give to people who become homeless.

“Sleeping bags. A cooler,” Stout said. “You have to think, they can’t have a refrigerator. What can they put their food in?”

‘You want to do something’

These questions are also on the mind of Allison Harrell, a Searsmont woman who has struggled with housing insecurity in the past. When she saw on a friend’s Facebook page that Belfast was offering to give a tent to a displaced family, she wanted to help.

“You want to not only wring your hands on Facebook. You want to try and do something,” she said.

So Harrell is working to get the word out about the need for camping gear. She has gotten permission from the owners of All About Games on Main Street in Belfast to use their store as a drop-off point to collect donations.

“It’s not surprising to me that camping is an option,” Harrell said. “I think that the needs of different homeless people are so vastly different. The conversation comes up a lot in the community that there are people who prefer camping or living outdoors. For some people, maybe it’s OK, and what they prefer. But certainly, families with young children, it seems like it’s not an ideal situation.”

Even if a homeless or housing insecure person gets a tent, there isn’t a municipal campground, and people are largely on their own to find a place to pitch them. Stout encourages them to call campgrounds, where sometimes the owners will let people work in order to stay there, or find landowners who wouldn’t mind if they camp on their land.

“I’ve heard of a couple of places with three or four tents back there,” she said. “They just live. They don’t harm anybody.”

A complicated problem

Stout described the needs of homeless or housing insecure people as being complicated, without a simple one-size-fits-all fix. It’s hard to apply for a job when a person doesn’t have a fixed address.

The problem is compounded if the person also lacks reliable transportation. Without a car, it can also be hard to get employment or to access state services — the district office for the Maine Department of Health and Human Services is located in Rockland, more than 20 miles from Belfast.

Apartments are scarce right now in Belfast, and even if people at risk of homelessness can find a place to stay, they may not make enough money to afford rent.

“Rents are just going up,” Stout said. “Everything is going up.”

And although there’s clearly a housing problem in Waldo County, the nearest shelters are in Ellsworth, Orland, Bangor and Rockport. Even then, shelters may not be a good fit for everyone.

“A lot of times they’re not family shelters and I don’t want to send a family there,” Stout said.

All of this is why a group of concerned Belfast area citizens began meeting during the past year to talk about solutions and to raise awareness about the issue.

“People don’t realize,” Stout said. “That’s why we got this group together, so we can try to figure out what’s going on in Waldo County. We have people from the churches, local citizens, doctors, local organizations, trying to figure out what to do next.”

Angie is also still trying to figure that out. For the time being, she’s couch-surfing, with her kids staying a lot at their dad’s house. After applying for many jobs during the last couple of months, she finally got an interview with an employer this week and is hoping her luck might turn around. As well, she has learned that if she finds another apartment, the city might be able to help her come up with the security deposit.

“It’s kind of rough going,” she said.

Harrell, who is trying to secure camping gear for homeless people, said that although things have turned around for her, she remembers times in her life when she was struggling to find food and shelter.

“To be at a point where you’re food insecure, and housing insecure, it’s a scary feeling,” she said. “Doing what I can to help people going through that situation is really bread-and-butter charity work. You can’t do other than try to feed people and shelter people and offer them some amount of hope in a time of crisis.”

To contact Belfast’s General Assistance office, write generalassistance@cityofbelfast.org or call 338-3370 ext. 120