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For Preble Street Resource Center, a social services agency in Portland, Maine, adapting to the pandemic has meant the soup kitchen can’t serve indoor meals, social workers can’t meet clients in their offices, and limiting the number of people allowed in shelters -- all at a time when these services are needed the most. Christopher Booker reports on how a truck has helped solve the problem.
Yesterday, we brought you a story about the pressures small and independent businesses in Maine are under due to the economic uncertainty caused by the coronavirus pandemic.
That uncertainty has increased the need for social services, especially for the homeless who, due to COVID-19 restrictions, don't have the same access to resources as they did before.
NewsHour Weekend's Christopher Booker reports on what is being done to help fill in the gaps.
Meal preparation for Preble Street in Portland, Maine is a big production.
Chopping vegetables, cooking noodles, assembling sandwiches by the hundreds.
We're gonna do over a million meals in 2020, which is mind blowing to us.
A million meals in 2020?
Yeah, a million meals.
In their 35 years, the homeless and low-income support center has never had to make this many meals.
Mark Swann is the Executive Director.
I mean, we feel pretty good about keeping people from starving but we are also social workers. So, we're trying to get people, get the people who are sleeping outside, into shelters, into accessible shelters any way we can, we are trying to find housing, we're trying to offer treatment options for people with substance use disorder, we're trying to help people reconnect with families. But Maine winters are harsh and we got to do something right now to be ready.
Like every other organization during the pandemic, Preble Street has had to make big changes.
Precautions against the coronavirus means the social welfare agency can no longer offer indoor meals in its soup kitchen, the social workers can no longer meet with clients in their offices, and shelters have to decrease capacity.
For the past couple of months, the solution has come with this truck. At first pass, it's a food delivery service, but it's providing a lifeline between Preble Street and its clients.
We've always met people where they're at in a relationship perspective. And now we're meeting people where they're at, physically in the community, wherever they're at.
Ali Lovejoy is a social worker with Preble Street.
We're addressing people's food insecurity but we're also looking at all of the other needs that, that we have. We have somebody who comes up and says, I don't have any, I don't have any clothes for this weather, it's starting to get cold, can you help me find a coat? Can you help me find dry socks?
With its mobile outreach, Preble Street provides clients with two meals a day, seven days a week.
In the spring, Preble Street opened two new shelters and they are currently trying to purchase another building. But Swann expects they will need even more space — as evident in the number of people visiting Preble Street's food pantry.
When food pantry numbers go up, it's usually followed pretty soon after by shelter numbers going up as well — as people will do anything to pay the rent, including scrimp on food a little bit or go to a food pantry to help get a few days worth of food. But the rent is the last thing to go. And so, shelters need to be ready.
And has that come to pass?
It's starting to.
In April, Maine's state housing authority started a program to help Mainers pay their rent. Executive Director Daniel Brennan says the nearly $20 million provided by the state is already gone.
We received the last allocation of the coronavirus relief funds just a few weeks ago and we've had to stop the program as we head into October. We're hoping that there'll be more federal assistance coming from Congress.
The program provided rental relief to more than 14,000 households in Maine.
The need is big. We've had 125 applications a day on average coming in.
And obviously, these are 125 applications. This could be head of household people. This isn't, this isn't represented by 145 people, this could be 125 families.
And usually, what, two and a half people per family.
Brennan says the pandemic exposed already existing problems. There aren't enough houses in Maine, and the houses that are available are old, which ironically are currently in high demand as eager buyers from out of state scoop them up, putting an extra level of pressure on Maine's low wage earners.
There's a strange duality at play. On one hand, you have increased housing insecurity but there has been a bit of a housing boom with people moving from out of state. Now that more and more people can work remotely, they're looking at places like Maine and the Portland area because these are really attractive places.
Exactly. It was, it was a very strong housing market at the beginning. You've got a record low interest rate environment. So on that hand, you've got more affordability, right? But at the same time, you've got a tremendous amount of demand coming in.
This all happening as winter approaches, the moratorium on eviction ends and financial support has ended.
You know, some of the folks that we're in touch with who are renting apartments are people that used to be homeless, people that, you know, we used to work with, or maybe we still do, but they've been in housing for months or years. And now because of circumstances, we expect to see some of those people coming back through our doors.
Absent another relief bill from the federal government, there is little Portland or the state of Maine will be able to offer in financial assistance.
I understand the pressures on municipal and state and federal government. But this is a time to support people who have nothing else. You know, the most vulnerable people in our community.
Watch the Full Episode
Christopher Booker is a correspondent and producer for PBS NewsHour Weekend covering music, culture, our changing economy and news of the cool and weird. He also teaches at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs, following his work with Northwestern's Medill School of Journalism in Chicago and Doha, Qatar.
Mori Rothman has produced stories on a variety of subjects ranging from women’s rights in Saudi Arabia to rural depopulation in Kansas. Mori previously worked as a producer and writer at ABC News and as a production assistant on the CNN show Erin Burnett Outfront.
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