Suspension of federal aid program hitting Hancock County homeless hard

ELLSWORTH – Mollie Bunting sits on a lounge chair outside her room at the White Birches Motel on Route 1, where she has lived for six months with her boyfriend and service dog. She works part-time at the motel, while her boyfriend has a full-time job at the Jackson Laboratory Animal Care Center. Both will become homeless after federal Emergency Housing Assistance (ERA) funds were suspended at the end of October.

“We’re looking at living in our car or in a tent,” Bunting said.

She had moved into White Birches after living without her car in the Walmart parking lot for several months. But due to chronic medical issues, she ended up in hospital twice.

“Physically I can’t stand being homeless,” she said.

Danielle Rollins moved into the White Birches Motel with her partner under the 90-day Emergency Rental Assistance Program on September 28. Now that the pandemic funding is gone, she’s due to leave at the end of October.

The same goes for Danielle Rollins and Michael Lewis, who were approved for 90 days of emergency rental assistance on September 26 and moved into the White Birches two days later. They previously lived in Lamoine State Park and out of their car in the Walmart parking lot, after Rollins terminated his lease on a Hancock rental “for my safety and security” and filed a restraining order against his landlord for alleged abusive behavior. It was June and she immediately applied for the ERA program.

Rollins’ story is a pandemic story. She lost her full-time job as a fitness and yoga instructor at the Mount Desert Island YMCA amid the pandemic in 2020, so she opened a yoga studio which was closed months later due building code violations. Next came a job at Walmart.

With the 90-day emergency housing assistance, she thought she had time to ‘get her back on her feet’, she said, but now she and Lewis are moving to Waterville, where they can stay temporarily with their families. Lewis worked full-time in the laboratory animal facility.

“I lost my job [and] my health is terrible,” Rollins said. “I lost the ability to keep the house I had [and] I lost my business. [The pandemic] is not over for me.

“We were both employees, at Walmart and Jackson Lab,” Lewis said, noting that both are large-scale employers who pay relatively high hourly wages for unskilled labor that still can’t. cover the high cost of rent in the area.

Rollins said she feels lucky to have family to stay with, even if it means leaving her son and granddaughter behind. Her daughter, who planned to return to her family in Maine, has now changed those plans.

“We’re just lucky,” she said. “I fear for people who are not.”

The ERA program, created to help people who lost their jobs and/or homes during the pandemic, has funneled $8,063,805 into Hancock County since its launch in March 2021, according to data released by Maine Housing, the state agency overseeing the program. It contracts with agencies throughout Maine, funneling federal dollars from Hancock County to Downeast Community Partners, which approves applications and distributes emergency rental funds to landlords. Maine Housing announced that the program will be suspended on September 29 at 5 p.m. and that it will no longer accept new or renewal applications after this date.

“We know that this decision is very difficult and [will] cause tremendous hardship,” said Scott Thistle, director of communications for Maine Housing. “But this program had a specific end point. … It was a pandemic program to help people for a short time [but] he identified a problem with housing instability that people had whether the pandemic was here or not.

Arriane Omellan had to send her two children to their parents three hours away because of homelessness. She will lose her emergency accommodation at the White Birches at the end of this month.

Local rents were already rising before the pandemic, according to Maine Housing data, from a median of $1,033 for a two-bedroom apartment in Hancock County, including utilities, in 2016 to $1,379 in 2020 – before rents rise further. In Ellsworth, the median 2020 rent for a two-bedroom apartment was $1,629, while the median renter household income was $29,743 – well below the $65,177 needed for the apartment to be considered as affordable.

Thistle said the ERA program will continue to “help people who have already been approved. Once we run out of funding, the program will end,” unless the federal treasury decides to allocate more money to the program. Currently, about 10,000 applications are pending, he said.

Rollins and Lewis, both in their 40s, were approved before September 29 and are unsure why they still have to leave the White Birches at the end of this month.

Sharon Catus, director of development for Downeast Community Partners, said the agency would review each application approved by September 29 to determine their eligibility for November, but the money must be available for assistance. Additionally, while the U.S. Treasury Department will decide on a third round of reallocations in early January, “to be eligible for this third round, Maine would have to return $25.9 million” because the state has not reaches the 95% threshold spent on existing funds by June 30, as required by the Treasury. Maine reached that standard in September.

“It is unclear if there will be funds left to reallocate at this stage,” she added.

With COVID cases on the rise in Maine, Maine Housing, the governor’s office and community action agencies like the DCP “are pressuring the congressional delegation to come up with options,” she said. “All of this is obviously very frustrating and extremely disheartening.”

This does not meet the immediate needs of temporary White Birches residents like Bunting and her neighbor Arriane Omellan, both 27. Both are on waiting lists for Section 8 vouchers that help with rent for low-income families. For Omellan, who has been homeless for a year, she said, and who suffers from mental health issues that make daily life difficult, it means her two children will continue to live with their grandparents at three. of road. She sent them there in February.

“I didn’t do anything but try to find a place to live,” Omellan said.

Jonnie Coolidge, 60, and his partner David Scholefield, 61, both disabled, have lived at the White Birches since March under the ERA program since their 10-year-old Lamoine rental came on the market. They were deported in September 2021, Scholefield said, while recovering from cancer surgery.

“Since then we’ve pretty much been homeless,” Scholefield said. He now has to undergo surgery for a hernia, he said, while Coolidge faces knee surgery.

“We lost everything,” Coolidge added. “We don’t know what to do, and it’s scary.” They are also on a waiting list for a Section 8 voucher.

There is a possibility of more federal funding from the ERA program, and Maine Housing will continue to try to apply for and receive additional allocations, Thistle said. “This program has literally helped more than 34,000 [Maine] households throughout the life of this program. He added that “the vast majority” of families who have received help – 86% – are not staying in motels but in apartments and houses and are in the same situation as those staying at the White Birches.

“The program was set up to be short-term,” Thistle said. “[It] responded to a need that existed before the pandemic and will exist after the pandemic is over.

Anne Berleant

Journalist Anne Berleant covers news and features in Ellsworth, Mariaville, Otis, Amherst, Aurora, Great Pond and Osborn. When she’s not reporting, find her hiking the local trails, reading or watching professional tennis. Email him at [email protected]

Anne Berleant

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