At its Council meeting in November, the Portland City Council voted to fully fund Spurwink’s ARPA (American Rescue Plan Act) proposal for Ashlea’s Place, an ultra-low barrier housing first mental health recovery residence for people struggling with long-term homelessness. This project will be a collaboration between Spurwink, Community Housing of Maine (CHOM), and Milestone; and is designed to serve those who have struggled to maintain placement in residential/Private Non-Medical Institution (PNMI), housing first, and shelter services due to struggles with serious mental illness, substance use, and justice system involvement.
The program is named after a long time member of the unhoused community. Spurwink’s teams spent years trying unsuccessfully to help them find housing, finally deciding to create a program specifically to meet their, and other similar community member’s needs. Sadly, they died of natural causes at the beginning of the pandemic.
Thousands of adults in the greater Portland area suffer from serious mental illness (SMI), which include schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, major depressive disorder, and others. In 2010, the city of Portland estimated that number at 4,800, and we have only seen numbers grow since then (City of Portland, 2010). The symptoms of these illnesses increase vulnerability to homelessness, unemployment, hospitalization, and incarceration. People with co-occurring SMI and substance use disorder (SUD) face even greater challenges to successful community living.
Ashlea’s Place will not only save lives, but it will also have a dramatic impact on the wellbeing of Portland as a whole. According to the National Alliance to End Homelessness, “providing access to housing generally results in cost savings for communities because housed people are less likely to use emergency services, including hospitals, jails, and emergency shelter, than those who are homeless. One study found an average cost savings on emergency services of $31,545 per person housed in a Housing First program over the course of two years. Another study showed that a Housing First program could cost up to $23,000 less per consumer per year than a shelter program.” The Housing First model has proven redundantly that housing is a social determinant of health, and that by addressing housing first, people are better poised to address their physical and mental health. Without stable housing doing so is difficult and costly. Housing provides people the stability and foundation from which they can launch and launch well – addressing needs that go unaddressed while homeless – which only compounds the issues and continues the cycle. The effect on and costs associated with the overall system of care is far reduced when someone is housed with adequate, appropriate support services commensurate with need. Instead of relying upon emergency systems to meet emergency medical needs, people access primary care and other less acute systems of care. Everyone is better for this – the people served, the systems that serves them, and the community in which they reside. This is particularly true for the people with the most complex circumstances and the most vulnerable. When housed they are no longer easy prey, they have a haven from predators, a safe, stable place they can call home and work to rebuild their self-esteem and their lives, with vital help from support service professionals.
While there are other large scale housing first projects in the greater Portland area, they do not offer integrated behavioral health services, and have struggled to successfully house people with combined SMI, SUD, and long term homelessness. The integrated treatment approach and coordination of care across multiple treatment providers at Ashlea’s Place would make this a unique service. This project involves many providers working together, in a way that has not happened prior, to find safe and stable supportive housing for people who are chronically unhoused in a strategic and coordinated way. This model does not yet exist. The program will help clients manage their symptoms, successfully navigate the service delivery system, and access and sustain safe, stable, and supportive housing.
While we weren’t able to help Ashlea find housing, we hope this program will be able to help other vulnerable unhoused community members and improve Portland’s living environment for everyone.