A man holds a tarp as wind and rain from tropical storm Isaias sweeps through City Hall Plaza in Portland on Aug. 4. More than 100 homeless people, struggling renters and their advocates had been camping out there for more than two weeks. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

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Haley West and Leah Ridley are social work graduate students at the University of Southern Maine.

In Maine, homelessness has been on the rise in recent years due to the lack of affordable housing. The most significant barrier to solving homelessness is the lack of resources to provide affordable housing and shelter for everyone in need.

Since 2001, over 12.8 percent of national low-income housing has been permanently lost, and little has been done to develop new options to meet the rising need of low-income families and individuals. A rapid decrease in housing options, coupled with the increased income stratification experienced by Americans, has resulted in a landslide of low-income people falling into homelessness.

There are four types of homeless experiences commonly referred to: unsheltered, emergency sheltered, provisionally accommodated and at-risk of homelessness or those with a future need. While COVID-19 has changed daily life for everyone, it has also highlighted the vulnerability and requirements for providing both safe shelters and long-term solutions. As winter approaches, there is a pressing need to help protect homeless people from the elements.

In the past, shelters would pack people to capacity on the coldest nights; however, with COVID-19, that is not an option.The number of people seeking emergency shelter in Portland is approaching record levels. On Nov. 9, a record 539 people used city-run shelters, and city officials say that’s the most since the summer of 2019 when hundreds of migrant families arrived unexpectedly from the southern border.

Since March 2020, many shelters have been functioning at half their normal capacity to adhere to the Center of Disease Control and World Health Organization guidelines. Individuals living in shelters are frequently in close proximity, even at half the normal capacity. It is challenging to socially distance and maintain six feet apart in shelters when there are multiple beds in one room, shared living spaces, and people eating meals together in the same dining area. Based on public knowledge about the importance of socially distancing during COVID-19, investing in shelters is not the best approach, but supporting long-term housing is.

LD 48 created the opportunity for like-minded people and organizations to come together and think about both the short- and long-term impacts of homelessness. While this bill is dead, it has shed light on where real change and support are needed, which can begin by either reviving LD 48 or sponsoring a new bill that increases equal housing opportunities.