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Homelessness: a hidden problem

The Original Irregular of Kingfield, Maine

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NORTHERN FRANKLIN COUNTY — "Rural homelessness looks very different than homelessness in places like Portland," stated Patricia Lehmann, PATH Navigator at Catholic Charities. She explained the homeless do not just live on the streets. They are couch surfers, they live in abandoned buildings or set up camp in the woods. Oftentimes, they have minimal heat and no access to electricity or running water.

Evelyn Wilbur, Phillips Food Pantry Director agrees, "We serve couch surfers and people living in campers in the middle of the woods. There are more cases like that than we realize."

Tammie Gould, United Methodist Economic Ministry Operations Manager stated she has seen an increase in severity of homelessness among young adults. "For whatever reason they don't feel welcome at home, and so they couch surf. These young people have a real instability when it comes to where they can sleep," stated Gould.

"We assume people have housing. We assume it is a given that people have a place to live. Rural homelessness is a real problem and it is real easy to look away," stated Lehmann.

The PATH program, Projects for Assistance in Transition from Homelessness, is a statewide outreach that seeks out homeless individuals and connects them with community, state or federal services that are available to them. The goal is to help people find a way out of homelessness and to find a greater connection with their communities.

Lehmann does this by making connections in the communities she serves and by being visible and available to those that may need her. She spends Thursday afternoons at the United Methodist Economic Ministry but is more than happy to come up at other times if someone has questions or concerns about themselves or others. Lehmann stated all she needed for a referral is the name of the individual or family, a description of the issue and their location.

After a referral is made and a connection is set up, Lehmann works with individuals by helping them with housing, connecting them with resources and advocating for them at appointments.

Even if individuals do not want to work with Lehmann, she is still able to check in with referrals. "What I do can be as small as giving someone a blanket or as full blown as setting them up with all available resources," she stated. Without giving detail, she noted a recent situation where a family was living under a bridge in a local town. "It is really important to understand that there is a great need in Franklin County. We just don't see it."

Lehmann explained that although there is a high rate of mental illness or substance abuse among the homeless, homelessness can happen to anyone and for a variety of reasons. "A lot of people are living paycheck to paycheck. If they lose that paycheck and don't have a savings, they can face eviction," she said. Lehmann also stated evictions can come for a number of reasons other than failure to pay. She explained a very likely situation where a landlord could evict a tenant so a relative could move in. "Without savings, there would be no money for a deposit on a new home. You can be working and not have a place to live," she noted.

Added to that is the issue of scarce housing in rural areas. "There are single family dwellings, but not many apartments. There is a real lack of smaller and more affordable housing," she said.

Lehmann has been with the program for more than two years. In that time, the program has served more than 300 people in Franklin, Oxford, Androscoggin and Sagadahoc counties. "This is a huge problem and it is really hidden," she stated.

To contact Lehmann, call Janice Lara-Hewey, PATH Intake, at 272-9210 or stop by UMEM Thursday afternoons. Lehmann stated people could also contact Gould at 678-2611 if they were more comfortable doing that.

"Rural homelessness is a real problem and it is real easy to look away."

Patricia Lehmann, PATH Navigator

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Original Publication Date: November 4, 2015

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