A "Housing First" approach used since 2005 in Portland is being eyed by Gov. Janet Mills for a statewide expansion.
Michelle Ducas sits on the edge of her bed in her third-floor efficiency apartment at Huston Commons in Portland on Wednesday. Ducas is an original resident at the 6-year-old "Housing First" building developed by Avesta and run by Preble Street. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

PORTLAND, Maine — After losing her Oxford Hills home in a fire 10 years ago, Michelle Ducas spent the money she had before landing in a Lewiston shelter, then headed to Portland thinking it would be easier to find a good job.

It proved harder than she expected. The 38-year-old ended up homeless, living at times in emergency housing in the Oxford Street Shelter. It was a tough and sad way to spend her days, she said.

Ducas was fortunate to become one of the first residents of Huston Commons, which opened in 2017 as the third “Housing First” program in Portland. The model provides permanent housing to those who lack it without preconditions such as sobriety. It has 24-hour support services for people with mental health and substance use disorders.

“This is everything for me,” Ducas said. “I can’t imagine being out there anymore.”

The Housing First programs in Portland have proven so successful that Gov. Janet Mills called them out in her budget address last month, saying she supported a measure from Rep. Drew Gattine, D-Westbrook, to take the program statewide.

Under the bill, the state would support housing for 400 people experiencing homelessness in 12 to 15 developments across Maine. A similar idea was floated in 2017, but then-Gov. Paul LePage vetoed it, calling it an entitlement that would be a “major ongoing financial commitment.”

Recent snow blankets the lawn in front of Huston Commons on Bishop Street in Portland on Wednesday. Huston Commons is a Housing First building developed by Avesta and run by Preble Street. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

The current program has three buildings in Portland. The first, Logan Place, opened in 2005 with 30 efficiency apartments. Next came Florence House with 25 units and then Huston Commons with 30 units.

The buildings have a common area for socializing, a shared kitchen for group meals, a health clinic and two staff on duty at all times to support residents. There currently are 180 people on the waitlist to get into one of the three places.

The Housing First program is a joint effort between Avesta Housing, which develops and manages the buildings, and Preble Street, which supplies the support staff. Construction and development of the buildings were funded with low-income housing tax credits allocated by the Maine State Housing Authority, said Rebecca Hatfield, CEO of Avesta Housing. Rents are supported by project-based vouchers issued by the local housing authority.

A white board gives the weather and a quote for the day inside the lobby at Huston Commons on Bishop Street in Portland on Wednesday. Huston Commons is a Housing First building developed by Avesta and run by Preble Street. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

Preble Street gets some staff funding from the U.S. Housing and Urban Development, but it has to seek other money for most of the operational costs and programs. That is where state support might help.

Housing First has shown benefits in Portland and around the country. Providing housing to people who were homeless cuts the average cost of services they use, including emergency room visits and police contacts, by more than 60 percent, according to a survey of 23 tenants at Logan Place. The cost savings to care for those people topped $93,000, or about $944 annually per person, compared with caring for them when they were unsheltered.

Residents also tend to stay in their housing. A 2021 study of programs in the U.S. and Canada found the program decreased homelessness by 88 percent, compared with programs that require getting treatment before being housed. A study conducted in New York City in 2000 had similar results.

“When you have a very high-needs population, around-the-clock services are really the difference-maker in their success,” Hatfield said. “That maximizes housing stability and helps prevent a return to homelessness.”

Those who qualify for the Housing First program must be chronically homeless, meaning they have lacked housing for a year straight or have been homeless four separate times in three years. It includes those who can’t maintain a home without support and struggle with untreated mental illness, untreated substance-use disorder and medical issues.

Preble Street Vice President of Strategic Initiatives Donna Yellen signs a creative window shade inside Huston Commons resident Michelle Ducas’ apartment in Portland on Wednesday. Ducas moved into the Housing First building six years ago. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

One thing that differentiates the program from others is it doesn’t require residents to become sober or see a mental health caseworker before they get housing.

“We realized it’s more successful to help people with housing, and then once they are in housing get them support,” Donna Yellen, vice president of strategic initiatives at Preble Street, said. “It’s the only solution for those people.”

It’s important to get people to move into their own place where they are safe and can start recovering from the traumas of homelessness, Yellen said. That means not having to worry about being asked to leave if they do not follow certain guidelines. They can also get support any time of day.

“If you’ve been living outside, it’s at night when people are awake, when the demons hit and they want to talk to someone,” Yellen said.

Dawn Wade stands with a few of her plants on the third floor of Huston Commons in Portland on Wednesday. Wade, who has two cats, has been living at the Housing First building for six years. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

Dawn Wade, 54, who lives down the hall from Ducas with two cats, can attest to that. Her struggles with alcohol cost her a waitressing job. She now likes to cook collard greens and lasagna for the other residents.

“On the street you never can sleep,” she said. “You’re always worried about being stolen from.”

Her friend, Ducas, provides a backstop when she struggles, as do staffers like Brittney Dunham, senior director of social work at Preble Street.

“I lost my mother 10 years ago, and I don’t have anybody to love me,” Wade said. “But people like Brittney love me, and that’s very important to me.”

Ducas, who lives in an apartment with her cat, Jenga, surrounds herself with her own paintings, including a large piece with the handprints and signatures of people who have visited her.

She is considering going back to school to focus on art or writing, two pursuits she enjoys. To Dunham, that is a success story.

“One of the beautiful things about these buildings is that people get to dream again,” she said.

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Lori Valigra

Lori Valigra, senior reporter for economy and business, holds an M.S. in journalism from Boston University. She was a Knight journalism fellow at M.I.T. and has extensive international reporting experience...