Maine State Trooper Connor Willard hands Bruce Cavallaro a garbage bag at the park-and-ride lot on Marginal Way in Portland on Aug. 2. Willard was letting campers, including Cavallaro, know that they would all have to move to the eastern end of the state-owned lot. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

As people struggle to cover basic needs like housing, the Maine Department of Health and Human Services announced Wednesday it will dole out $8.5 million in one-time General Assistance funding to offset rapidly increasing costs.

Portland will get 88 percent of those funds based on its spending during the 2022 fiscal year. That figure underscores the role of Portland as both the state’s largest city and its status as Maine’s largest service provider as the related housing and homelessness crises challenge cities and towns of all sizes.

Maine has seen historically high demand for General Assistance, a program managed jointly by the state and municipalities, in recent years due to the “unsustainably high” costs for basic necessities that have spiked since the COVID-19 pandemic, the health department said in a news release.

For example, spending on temporary housing statewide saw more than a tenfold increase from 2019 to 2023, going from $2 million to $26 million, the agency said. The total increase in GA costs for both the state and municipalities from 2019 to 2023 was $30 million.

To provide some temporary relief in the coming fiscal year, over 200 Maine cities, towns and tribal communities will receive one-time GA funds, which will be distributed based on their previous GA costs. Portland will receive nearly $7.5 million. The funding was proposed by Gov. Janet Mills and was enacted in the Legislature’s biennial budget.

The increased demand is coinciding with a statewide housing shortage. A recent state report found that Maine needs to construct 38,500 homes by 2030 to remedy historic housing underproduction, and a further 38,000 to 46,000 homes to account for population and workforce growth in the coming years.

In Cumberland County, where the majority of new funding will be distributed, the median sales price of a home was $550,000 in September 2023,  up 10 percent from that time last year, according to data from Maine Listings. That data showed the number of units sold in the county was 23 percent less than in September 2022.

The one-time funds will be administered by municipalities and tribes, but the program is overseen by DHHS, which funds 70 percent of eligible costs. The health department hopes to return to providing this kind of temporary support covering basic needs as a “last resort” and is looking to reform the program to ensure its long-term sustainability.

“This funding will help Maine communities offset increased costs as we continue our work with partners to improve the program into the future,” DHHS Commissioner Jeanne Lambrew said in Wednesday’s release.

Zara Norman joined the Bangor Daily News in 2023 after a year reporting for the Morning Sentinel. She lives in Waterville and graduated from Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, in 2022.