A client who was helped into an apartment by Preble Street named George, right, stands next to Rapid Re-Housing caseworker Haley Deluca, left, outside Preble Street's Portland office on Thursday. The program has helped 75 people get housing since October 2020. Credit: Courtesy of Preble Street

It has never been so difficult to secure housing for homeless residents in Portland to find housing in a rental market that has gotten more expensive by the day.

“We’re seeing one-bedrooms for $1,200, $1,300, $1,400 dollars,” said Erin Kelly, director of the Rapid Re-Housing program at Preble Street, a homeless services organization in Portland. “That’s just incredibly difficult for someone who might be making $12, $13, $14 dollars an hour.”

Kelly is leading an effort by Preble Street to throw all available resources into quickly getting people off Portland’s streets. Portland-based Preble Street’s Rapid Re-Housing Services program has served over 100 people since October 2020, putting 75 people in stable housing during that time by partnering with local landlords.

Many homeless residents want to stay in Portland, but that has been particularly challenging in the last seven or eight months, Kelly said. Many residents served by the organization can’t even afford apartments with housing vouchers.

“There’s little to no affordable housing,” Kelly said.

Housing prices are rising everywhere in Maine, but Kelly said Preble Street had softened some of the blow by settling people in neighboring communities like Biddeford and Saco or Lewiston if they had connections there like family or friends.

Caseworkers are currently working with homeless residents at South Portland’s Comfort Inn, where residents’ status is uncertain. FEMA funding for their stay is set to expire at the end of the month. The program works primarily with individuals, but has also settled couples and families.

Though the first step is getting them into stable housing as quickly as possible, case workers assist their clients in getting connected to health care, substance use disorder services and mental health assistance, usually working with people for six months to a year. They also pay for the client’s security deposits as well as basic supplies for an apartment.

George, a male client of the program, had been homeless for two years before being helped into an apartment. He was surprised by how quickly the process happened, saying he was especially happy he no longer had to carry his belongings everywhere he went.

The program came after the federal government began using federal COVID-19 relief funds to inject funding into homeless assistance across the country. The funds went first to MaineHousing, which granted them to Preble Street.

The pandemic seriously affected Maine’s economy. The unemployment rate tripled at the outset, with many finding themselves laid off and some even ending up homeless.

But there was less shelter space to house the state’s homeless population. COVID-19 could spread easily and quickly in group living situations, so shelters were forced to take less people to avoid the strong force of the virus.

Service providers like Preble Street have sought to stem the tide. They don’t always have the resources to do so. Kelly noted that they were always looking for more partnerships with local landlords in helping with the city’s growing homeless problem.

“Homeless services providers have had to kind of do the best with what we’ve got,” Kelly said. “There’s much more demand than we have available to provide to people.”