A homeless man sitting outside a coffee shop accepts cash from a customer on a bitter cold morning, Thursday, Jan. 31, 2019, in Portland, Maine. Credit: Robert F. Bukaty | AP

According to federal data released earlier this month, the number of people experiencing homelessness in Maine dropped by more than 15 percent from 2018 to last year. But housing advocates say those numbers are misleading — and that decline actually reflects the fact that fewer people received some state services.

The newly released Annual Homeless Assessment Report, from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), appears to show positive trends for Maine. The report says that while the number of people experiencing homelessness increased nationwide, it actually fell by more than 16 percent in Maine. In a release, HUD New England Regional Administrator David Tille said the agency is, “proud of the work being done” in the state to reduce homelessness.

But housing advocates, including Stephanie Primm, the executive director of the Knox County Homeless Coalition and the chair of the Maine Statewide Homeless Council, say the HUD figures are not an accurate representation of what is actually happening on the ground. Primm says with rising housing costs across the state, needs are just as great — if not greater — than they have been in the past.

“We’ve talked in the last six months, at the council level, about how we’re especially, sadly, seeing increases in whole families presenting,” says Primm. “As well as the older demographic — retirees, people at that age.”

MaineHousing Director Dan Brennan says the federal count appears to show a decline because of a reduction in transitional housing vouchers in the state to homeless individuals.

“It puts that number into perspective, and that clarification helps that,” he says.

Brennan says the reduced number of vouchers involved a state-funded program called the Bridging Rental Assistance Program, or BRAP, which provides housing subsidies to certain people with psychiatric disabilities.

In an email, Department of Health Human Services spokesperson Jackie Farwell says the LePage Administration froze the BRAP program from November 2017 to the end of 2018. Requirements were tightened, she says, almost no new vouchers were issued, and “nearly all new applicants were placed on a waitlist.”

According to data provided by the agency, the monthly average number of households using the program to get housing fell by more than one-third from January 2018 to January 2019. But Farwell says the Mills Administration lifted the freeze in 2019, and that the number of new households that obtained housing with the subsidies more than doubled last year.

“BRAP is a priority for the Department, and we plan to use resources available through this program to further improve access to vouchers and connect BRAP participants to housing,” Farwell says.

Several homeless advocates in Maine say the federal count has never been a very accurate or comprehensive measure of homelessness. Cullen Ryan, the director of Community Housing of Maine, says that the number is based only on how many people are counted during one day in January. But he says shelters, service providers and other organizations in Maine work together to compile a more precise count, which tallies the total number of people served over an entire year.

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And the two measures show drastically different pictures of the issue. Ryan says that while the state counted about 5,900 people as homeless last year, the federal homeless assessment reported less than half that number.

“So the numbers are not as accurate and tend to be only a small fraction of the number of people who actually experience homelessness when we count them over the course of a year. And Maine is particularly good at that.”

Despite continued need for housing, officials say several steps are being taken to address the issue, including construction of more affordable housing. And Ryan says the number of chronically homeless individuals has substantially declined in recent years. But advocates say even more investment is needed, including increasing rental subsidies and support services.

This article appears through a media partnership with Maine Public.