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Pat LaMarche was a Green Party candidate for vice president and for governor of Maine. She is now an author, activist and advocate for those without homes.

How about this winter? Cold enough for ya? And the wind! My land, I thought I’d be blown right out of the motel parking lot as I made my way to visit a dying friend.

Thanks to the expert hospice team at Northern Light Eastern Maine Medical Center, she didn’t die in the motel. She passed at the aptly named Aroostook House of Comfort in Presque Isle. Luckily, my friend hit 65 and qualified for Medicare before her condition became terminal. She’s especially fortunate that hospice facilities don’t have a moratorium on providing care to those who are unstably housed.

See, if my friend had a house to live in, she could have died there. If she’d had financial resources – and a home – she could have gotten hospice care, round the clock, right up to the bitter end. But G (that’s her preferred nickname) had only a meager Social Security benefit. With her limited resources, she managed to pay for a weekly hotel room where she had to wash her own linens and take out her own trash.

I don’t want to weigh you down with details, but considering Lewiston’s proposed moratorium on a low-barrier shelter, allow me to be more specific. G used to have more than just her Social Security. She used to have a small retirement that she’d put away over the years. By small I mean about $80,000. Pity for her that pre-Medicare she’d gotten extremely ill. Following a few life-saving surgeries, G got moved to a rehabilitation center in early 2020. You might remember what else happened in early 2020. An over-taxed healthcare system got slammed. Convalescent homes protected their ill and elderly patients with extreme lockdowns. G was isolated, incapacitated and had few options.

If you’re unfamiliar with what happens if you have a little money ($80,000 or so) and you need long-term care, here’s the 411: You must liquidate your life savings and pay for your own care.

By the autumn of 2021, G was literally broke. Angry that her life’s savings were gone, her wounds still unhealed, her freedom restricted and her prospects grim, she discharged herself from the long-term care facility to a nearby motel. In case you’ve been overwhelmed by the news associated with the pandemic, here’s the current status of homelessness in the United States. Thanks to the CARES Act and subsequent legislation, roadside motels have become federally funded homeless shelters for the 21st century. Lots of money’s poured into communities which, in the interest of mitigating community spread of COVID-19, used motels to house the unhoused.

This wasn’t the first time the feds supported motel housing. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act in 2009 helped folks get into hotels too. Other than these huge investments at the time of near economic collapse – especially in rural homelessness (which nearly all of Maine homelessness is) – hotels have long housed the unhoused if folks paid for it themselves. To some degree – in cases of emergency or disaster – agencies like the Red Cross, The Salvation Army and local churches have relied on motels as well.

In G’s case, she paid for it herself. Finally, cancer and her unresolved healthcare issues brought her to death’s door. The Northern Light ER doctor and the hospice team tried to make G comfortable. But homeless and alone – living in a motel –  that really wasn’t possible. Together we convinced her to go into care to a facility for help. One that didn’t care if she’d been homeless.

Why commingle G’s story with Lewiston’s moratorium? Because each story of homelessness is as unique as hers. Requiring that a person have a home before they get assistance – perpetuates suffering. A low-barrier shelter is a way to accept people in need – whether it’s because they can’t afford heat or their electric bill, have healthcare issues, live in their car or any of the myriad reasons for homelessness. A low-barrier shelter provides safety while their needs are assessed and their options identified. It’s a safety net for those who have none and it’s the right thing to do. G’s story proves that safety nets are needed – in Lewiston and everywhere.