2024 President's Forum

UNE’s President’s Forum tackles Maine’s homelessness crisis

Three experts discussed the roadblocks and opportunities to help those experiencing homelessness, including the morality of sweeping encampments.

2024 President's Forum

Pointed questions about the complexity of Maine’s homelessness crisis were answered Wednesday night at the University of New England’s signature President’s Forum event.

The forum, moderated by UNE Assistant Clinical Professor of Public Health Courtni Jeffers, Ed.D., featured three panelists who specialize in different perspectives of the homelessness crisis. The panelists were Danielle West, Portland city manager, Cullen Ryan, executive director of Community Housing of Maine, and Ali Lovejoy, vice president for mission advancement at Preble Street.

With a rise in the number of people experiencing homelessness in Maine last year, the debate has grown increasingly polarized about ways to help while balancing the needs of the community. UNE’s President’s Forum, established and hosted by UNE President James D. Herbert, provides an arena to discuss heated issues like these while keeping the conversation respectful and constructive.

James D. Herbert

UNE President James D. Herbert delivers opening remarks at his signature President’s Forum on Wednesday, Feb. 28, 2024.

“We see our fellow citizens out and about in our communities, standing at intersections asking for help. And, increasingly, we see them camping in public places. Our hearts go out to them, but most of us don’t know how to help, especially when we hear that some of them refuse the shelter or social services offered to them,” said Herbert during his opening remarks.

The discussion around Portland’s sweeping of encampments late last year drew the sharpest divide between West and Lovejoy, as the two provided different viewpoints on both the efficacy and morality of the approach.

“When you sweep (an encampment), you’re actually increasing the chance of fatal overdoses, you’re decreasing people’s connection to service providers,” Lovejoy said. “What we are not going to do is threaten people with incarceration if they don’t go to a shelter because that is a failure. And that’s just us relying on our power rather than our ability to deeply listen.”


Ali Lovejoy

Ali Lovejoy is vice president for mission advancement at Preble Street, a nonprofit social work agency that has been serving vulnerable populations in Maine for nearly 50 years.

West defended the city’s decision to sweep the encampments, noting her staff provided outreach several days in advance. She also said the sweeps, which she refers to as “resolutions,” led to hundreds of people moving indoors just before Maine’s first widespread snowfall of the season in December.

“No criminalization happened,” West said about the sweeps. “We’ve had zero arrests at any of the resolutions that we’ve ever done. We have staff on-site to provide significant notice. So, I have a hard time with the word ‘criminalization’ because, in my experience here in Portland, Maine, that was not the case at all.”

West also generated headlines in the local media when she announced there were no drug overdose deaths in Portland in January 2024. The last time that happened was April 2021, she said.

Danielle West

Danielle West is the city manager of Portland, which operates the largest municipal shelter and one of a small number of municipal public health departments in the state of Maine.

All three panelists agreed that getting people indoors, especially those who are chronically homeless, gives them the best chance to break out of the homelessness cycle.

“Chronically homeless people are up to 29 times more likely to be in the hospital and 57 times more likely to be in jail when unhoused than when they’re housed,” Ryan said. “In December, not one of the people who we housed that month touched a jail or hospital. So literally, once we house people, they stop ricocheting through our most expensive emergency systems.”

Cullen Ryan

Cullen Ryan is the executive director of Community Housing of Maine, the largest supportive housing provider for homeless and special needs populations in the state.

When it came to finding solutions to the issues, all three agreed that breaking down silos in the support system is the first step.

“The biggest roadblock that we see in our work at Preble Street has to do with trying to fit individuals into systems that are not designed or flexible enough to serve them effectively,” Lovejoy said.

West added that municipalities like Portland face a tough barrier of balancing the needs of the homeless community with other groups.

“It’s really tough to say this, but we can’t, as a municipality, be everything to everyone. And so that is a tough pill to swallow,” West said.

Ryan said the biggest strides will be made by bringing together community volunteers who work behind the scenes to improve the lives of those experiencing homelessness.

“None of us are going to end homelessness alone,” Ryan said. “But all of us can end homelessness together.”