The end of the housing assistance program is hampering the ability of agencies to help the homeless

The end of the housing assistance program is hampering the ability of agencies to help the homeless

Dani Laliberte, left, a PATH outreach social worker at the Opportunity Alliance, and Mary Cook, the director of the Emergency Rental Assistance Program, near their office Friday. The agency still serves hundreds of households in the Portland area, even though it had to lay off 36 of its employees. Brianna Soukup/staff photographer

The impending end of the federal emergency housing assistance program has left thousands of Mainers in dire need of housing assistance in a tight rental market as winter approaches. And the agencies that administered the program are also losing ERA-funded jobs, leaving people with even fewer resources to find help.

The absence is evident at the Comfort Inn & Suites in Scarborough, where The Opportunity Alliance assigned two full-time social workers in September to respond to city concerns about increased emergency calls to the hotel. Then MaineHousing suspended the temporary housing assistance program on September 29 because it ran out of funding sooner than expected.

The alliance, one of several community action agencies in Maine that administered the ERA program, responded by laying off 36 of the 53 staff assigned to the program, including seven Housing Stability Resource Managers, Mary said. Cook, director of the agency’s ERA program. . He kept seven staff members to end the program and transferred 10 to other programs within the agency.

Jobs, like the program, were always meant to be temporary. But the need is still there.

Dani Laliberte is one of two retired social workers from the Comfort Inn. She was reassigned to a program to help homeless people living on the outside, but Laliberte still ends up at the Route 1 hotel a few times a week, helping some of the more than 80 former clients get to medical and dental appointments or to access other services.

Many are children or are over 60 years old. Some are disabled or have dementia. None have the $6,000 needed to pay the first and last month’s rent and security deposit of a typical Portland-area apartment.

“I still help a lot of them,” Laliberte said Friday. “I think people are really overwhelmed and confused. Many of them didn’t have an endgame when ERA funding ran out. Sometimes you don’t think about it when you just need a roof over your head.

At the same time, the number of households in the 69-room hotel receiving ERA funding through December is declining, Cook said, from about 60 in September to 44 now, including 60 adults and 16 children.

Ten additional rooms are occupied by former ERA recipients who are staying at the hotel during the eviction process or the search for alternative accommodation, she said.

And while some ERA recipients living in hotels have received support from social workers, many former ERA recipients, including those living in apartments and other rentals, are now seeking help. through cash-strapped municipal general assistance programs.

“We knew the Emergency Rental Assistance Program wasn’t forever, but we’re not seeing a decrease in need,” Cook said. “Ideally, we would have had a smoother process. This generated a lot of fear and discomfort in the community. We are concerned about what will happen to these people in January.


The Opportunity Alliance was able to preserve ERA funding for about 800 tenant households through November, Cook said, but the end of the program leaves about 2,000 people without secure housing funding through 2023.

The alliance has 168 households receiving ERA funding staying in hotels in Cumberland County, including 40 households in hotels in South Portland and 20 households in hotels in Freeport, Cook said. They include 229 adults and 77 children.

After MaineHousing suspended the ERA program, the alliance had to drop 634 pending applications for new or continued rental assistance countywide, Cook said, putting 1,083 adults and 388 children at risk of becoming homeless. .

Mary Cook, director of the emergency rental assistance program at The Opportunity Alliance in Portland. Brianna Soukup/staff photographer

“We had to assess what we could really afford and back off a bit,” Cook said. “Now people are starting to get mad at their social workers because they’re not able to get housing done.”

Scarborough officials are implementing a phased plan that requires all emergency shelter guests to vacate the Comfort Inn by Jan. 1 so the hotel can resume normal operations authorized by its operating license. Requests for interviews with the general manager and manager or owner of the hotel went unanswered this week.

Many ERA recipients, most of whom live in apartments or other rental properties, had already reached their 12-month funding maximum and were no longer eligible for assistance when the program was suspended at the end of September. , MaineHousing spokesman Scott Thistle said.

“A good number of ERA households were hitting their program caps,” Thistle said. “So even if the funding hadn’t expired, they would have maxed out and would no longer be eligible for rental assistance under the ERA scheme.”

The program began in March 2021 as a temporary measure to help people who are struggling to pay rent or utility costs due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Since then, MaineHousing has provided $286 million in ERA funding to 32,659 households, with the largest share — $77.7 million — going to Cumberland County residents. The Opportunity Alliance provided funds to 10,531 households.

MaineHousing is still waiting for US Treasury officials to determine the remaining amount of the state’s ERA allocation. Thistle said state officials believe there will be enough funds to repay approximately $2 million in state funding that was transferred to keep ERA households in hotels until december.

The end of ERA funding leads to layoffs at many of the community action organizations that ran the program for MaineHousing.

“We’ve definitely recruited staff for this program,” said Megan Hannan, executive director of the Maine Community Action Partnership, which represents nine agencies across the state.


Hannan acknowledged the lack of transitional assistance for people who may need continued support after the ERA program ends.

“It’s an unknown at this point,” she said. “These resources have disappeared or are about to disappear. It was always meant to be a short-term program.

Hannan said many had hoped ERA funding would last longer, but demand was higher than expected in a tight housing market with rapidly rising rents. Various state and local efforts to increase housing development will take time, so they offer little hope to Mainers currently facing homelessness.

“The demand remains and the solutions are not immediate,” Hannan said.

Cook and others are hoping state officials will find enough money to keep former ERA recipients housed through the colder months ahead.

“Many leases signed or extended at a dramatically increased rental rate, in an increasingly difficult housing market, hoping to qualify for ERA assistance to cover their costs,” Cook said. . “We have received hundreds of calls since applications closed from people who still need help.”

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