Amanda Barlow plays dolls with her 4-year-old twin daughters, Elizabeth (left) and Lillian Hall, after school on March 8. Her son, 6-year-old Bryson Hall, relaxes on the couch. When Barlow feared she would become homeless in early March, she found out that she qualified for a diversion program that delivered a check to her landlord, keeping her family under a stable roof. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

This story is part of an ongoing series that examines how Maine and its communities have used the once-in-a-generation windfall from the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021. Stories will be published around the two-year anniversary of President Joe Biden signing the legislation into law.

WATERVILLE, Maine — Amanda Barlow has been homeless before. In early March, she thought it would happen again.

After her ex-husband left the home they shared in February without paying his portion of rent, she was left to come up with the money. She quit her part-time job at Marden’s Surplus and Salvage because she did not have child care for her 6-year-old son and 4-year-old twin daughters.

So Barlow, 35, turned to the Mid-Maine Homeless Shelter, finding out she qualified for a program that delivered a $1,000 check to her landlord, keeping her family under a stable roof while she gets the rest of her life on course.

“I’ve been to the shelter [twice] before, and I was afraid it was going to happen again,” she said. “Knowing that was covered was just a big relief.”

Sally Chambers, prevention specialist at the Mid-Maine Homeless Shelter in Waterville, flips through files in one of the numerous binders used to keep track of people waiting to enter the shelter. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

Barlow is one of hundreds in Waterville who have benefited from this diversion program. The model has been used in other parts of the country but sparingly in Maine, where a 2021 report for the state housing authority recommended an emphasis on it to fight overreliance on shelters.

The COVID-19 pandemic gave it a push. Municipalities and social service agencies were looking for ways to keep people in vulnerable situations housed and safe, while counties and municipalities in Maine got roughly $500 million in aid under the American Rescue Plan Act to support initiatives that they may never have funded otherwise.

Cities including Waterville used some of their money on creative strategies that address homelessness and the housing affordability crisis. Their approaches are a mix of services like diversion to help people quickly and long-term projects that will take time to gain traction.

The aid gave cities the capability to make a dent in a long-term problem exacerbated by the pandemic housing shortage, said Katie Spencer White, CEO of the Waterville shelter. She called diversion “one of the most successful programs we’ve ever operated,” crediting its success in part to devoting two full-time social workers to answer triage calls.

“I believe this is the secret to our success,” she said.

The program began in early 2022 with money from MaineHousing. The city kicked in $155,000 in October. Diversion helped 331 people last year in Waterville, including 135 children, with an average per-person expense of $280. Having someone at the shelter costs roughly $50 daily plus more for support services. Over an average stay of 80 days, that totals $4,000.

Diversion can mean pointing people to resources they didn’t know existed, paying for a bus ticket to get them to a loved one with housing or fronting a security deposit, as the shelter did for a single mother of five who had been living in a home with lead paint.

The city also gave the shelter $200,000 to launch a master leasing program that negotiates with landlords to effectively manage units for low-income tenants. It plans to sublease 20 units to clients, targeting youth aged 18 to 24. Another $45,000 is being used for one year of case management services.

Waterville also created a $100,000 emergency fund for residents who need rent help. Designed to augment general assistance, the funds cannot exceed $2,000 a month per household. It has been used somewhat sparingly to date, with 29 people benefiting from about $9,000 in January and February.

People tour a men’s dormitory inside Portland’s new homeless services center on Riverside Street on March 22, 2023. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

Homelessness is hard to measure, but a point-in-time study on a single day last year in Maine suggested there were more than 4,400 homeless people across the state. It was a massive increase attributed in part to pandemic housing issues and a wave of asylum seekers from Africa that have come to the Portland area.

Portland’s City Council dedicated about a quarter of the city’s more than $46 million in recovery funds toward fighting homelessness and creating housing. It put $4 million toward a new $24 million shelter on Riverside Street that was at full capacity the day it opened in March. The city also will use $5.1 million to develop affordable housing.

“Portland is facing homelessness in many forms, from those entering our community to those suffering from chronic homelessness,” said Kaela Gonzalez, the city’s ARPA project coordinator. “I feel as if the funding addressed a lot of those concerns.”

In late September, a recuperative care program, which the city partially funded with $565,000 in ARPA dollars, launched at 934 Congress St. as the first of its kind in the state, said Ann Tucker, Greater Portland Health’s chief executive officer. The 15-room building provides short-term care to those not sick enough for continued hospitalization, but who lack dependable housing where they can recover from a serious injury or illness.

The program, a collaboration between Greater Portland Health, Maine Medical Center and Preble Street, ramped up slowly due to staffing shortages. As of early March, approximately 44 patients have stayed at the health center, Tucker said. On average, they remain there for 24 days.

In this Dec. 21, 2022, file photo, Mayor Carl Sheline makes a few remarks before a vigil which is part of a national movement marking National Homeless Persons’ Memorial Day in Lewiston. Credit: Andree Kehn / Sun Journal via AP

About a decade ago in Auburn, Glen Holmes would occasionally see a person standing on a street corner with a sign saying they’re homeless or seeking money for food and other necessities. Now the city’s business and community development director can name a half a dozen places where this is common, he said.

City leaders in Auburn and neighboring Lewiston are now using $1.7 million in ARPA funding separate from the cities’ allotments in different ways, though it must be spent on helping the homeless population.

Lewiston gave more than $786,600, to four organizations. New Beginnings, an organization serving runaway and homeless youth, got the largest share at $300,000 and will use it to provide financial assistance to those eligible for transitional living and case management, spokesperson Angelynne Amores said.

Auburn used a chunk of the Home-ARPA funds to hire a housing resource coordinator who visits encampments to build a rapport with the homeless population and connect people to essential resources. Another $200,000 will go to a nonprofit, but the organization must expand or offer new services instead of replicating what’s already available in the region, Holmes said.

At left, Elizabeth Hall, 4, reaches for a snack held by her twin sister, Lillian, while they play at home in Waterville on March 8, 2023. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

Back in Waterville, the shelter will be tracking how many of the people who benefited from diversion last year maintained their stability and how many entered the homeless services system. The goal is for 80 percent to have remained stable, said White, the shelter director who is also a member of the Maine Statewide Homeless Council.

In the future, she’d like to see a study done to prove diversion is an efficient and worthwhile approach. She also is confident it will save taxpayers money. For now, she’d like policymakers to invest fully in programs like diversion and master leasing.

“This is how we’ll end homelessness,” she said.