A homeless encampment in Bangor under the Interstate 395 Bridge in November 2021, shortly before it was cleared of residents for the winter. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

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A record number of Mainers were experiencing homelessness earlier this year, a trend driven in large part by increased housing costs, a count released this week by MaineHousing found.

Surveys of emergency shelters and other providers as well as unsheltered people found nearly 3,500 people experiencing homelessness in Maine on Jan. 25. Roughly 95 percent of them were staying in shelters while the remaining 5 percent were unsheltered.

The number is a massive increase from last January’s count of 1,097, though that did not include the unsheltered population in 2021. This year’s count is also the first to include people staying in hotels on funds from the state and local General Assistance program as well as the Emergency Rental Assistance Program, adding nearly 2,500 to the figure.

The count showcases the effect of rising housing costs and the economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on middle- and low-income households, MaineHousing spokesperson Scott Thistle said. It also shows that previous surveys were likely undercounts, he said.

It was clear that rising housing costs were increasing homelessness in Maine, a phenomenon that extends far beyond increased costs in Southern Maine, said Katie Spencer White, CEO of Mid-Maine Homeless Shelter & Services in Waterville. The average length of stay for residents in her shelter has ballooned from 37 days pre-pandemic to 60 days.

White said the shelter used to lease 35 to 40 households a month, but that number has declined to two to three “if we are lucky,” she said. Many units do not accept housing vouchers or have rent far beyond what vouchers can pay for, she said.

The actual number of people without stable housing is likely far higher, White said. The count takes place in January. Maine has more unsheltered people in the summer. There are also a lot more people who experience homelessness than a count on one night can show, she said. Her shelter served over 500 unique individuals in 2021, for example.

“On that basis, 3,500 does not reach the lower end of that estimation,” White said.

The report found that around one-fourth of people experiencing homelessness in Maine were children. Another six percent were those 18-24. Adults 25 and older made up the rest of those without a home.

The findings showcase a racial divide, especially for Black Mainers who make up only 2 percent of the state’s population but 35 percent of homeless residents. Native American Mainers also had a homelessness rate above the statewide average. Men were far more likely to experience homelessness than women, with a rate 17 percent higher than the general population.

The survey was conducted through the Maine Continuum of Care — a group of service providers in the state that are required to do so by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to receive federal funding under the 1987 McKinney–Vento Homeless Assistance Act.

White said her shelter has had success with a diversion program that attempts to get people housing before they go into a shelter. It had diverted 100 people, with support for the program coming from MaineHousing and COVID-19 relief funds from the city of Waterville.

“There are many solutions to the crisis. We just need to find the ones that work,” White said. “Not only in Southern Maine, but across the state.”