Maine: Panel considers ways to improve indigent legal services

Former Maine Chief Justice Daniel Wathen says something has to happen to ensure adequate funding and representation for poor people tried for crimes in the state.

AUGUSTA — A former Maine chief justice said something has to happen to ensure adequate funding and representation for poor people tried for crimes in Maine.

More resources are needed regardless whether the state sticks with the current system or creates a public defender office, Daniel Wathen said.

The Maine Commission on Indigent Legal Services held a public hearing last week as the panelists prepare a series of proposals to address the effectiveness of the state’s current system to provide legal defense to Maine’s poor.“Either an assigned counsel system or a public defender system can work. Both have advantages and disadvantages. But under either scenario, it requires adequate funding that the system has never experienced,” he told The Associated Press.

That system is under new scrutiny for lax oversight of the billing practices by the private attorneys commissioned to defend low-income clients.

A scathing report released in April detailed significant shortcomings.

All states are required to provide an attorney to people who are unable to afford their own lawyer under a landmark 1963 U.S. Supreme Court decision.

Maine is the only one of them that hires and assigns private attorneys to what are known as “indigent” cases. All other states now meet the requirement through some version of a public defender’s office and a staff of attorneys.

Alison Beyea, director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine, said the April report by the nonpartisan Sixth Amendment Center found that the system is failing indigent clients.

“The state has no mechanism in place for sorting the good from the bad, or for giving remedial training to the lawyers who are underqualified to do their job,” she said.

She pointed out that the ACLU has sued in other states for changes. But the ACLU is optimistic that the commission can make changes to avoid legal action.

In the 2018 fiscal year, Maine spent more than $21 million statewide to provide court-appointed counsel to Maine’s poor. The commission’s spending has nearly doubled in the nine years since it began overseeing several hundred private defense attorneys.

Pine Tree Watch, a nonprofit news service, launched an investigation and found that $2.2 million in potential overbilling by private attorneys.

Portland councilors must decide how many homeless people new out-of-sight shelter can hold

The City Council has to set the capacity so the shelter can be designed, but advocates for the homeless fear the city could abandon its 30-year commitment to taking in anyone in need of shelter.

Portland city councilors are facing a decision on the capacity of a new homeless shelter planned for the Riverton neighborhood, a key but sensitive step that is raising questions about the city’s decades-old pledge to shelter anyone in need.

A City Council committee is scheduled to vote Tuesday on a recommended capacity, which the full city council will ultimately determine and city staff will use as they design and prepare to operate the new shelter.

A draft resolution, discussed by the Health & Human Services and Public Safety Committee on Oct. 29, calls for “adequate capacity to handle occasional overflow.” It does not mention any limits on the number of people coming from outside Portland to seek a bed – a controversial restriction that has been discussed previously and could be raised again as the discussion moves to the full council.

In practical terms, the council needs to set a capacity so a new shelter can be designed. However, any attempt to do so could be seen as walking back the city’s 30-year commitment to shelter anyone in need. That commitment has led communities surrounding Portland and beyond to rely on the city’s shelter as safety net.

City officials have talked for many months about building a 150-bed shelter, but that number has not been formally endorsed by the council. At a previous meeting, one councilor suggested setting the capacity higher than the 150 beds, given that the city’s existing adult shelter and overflow spaces have routinely exceeded 200 people a night in recent years.

Another councilor suggested punting the sensitive capacity discussion to the full council.

“We’re going to have to build a shelter with a finite amount of beds,” City Councilor and committee member Brian Batson said at a recent meeting. “Of course, there will be overflow.”

Committee members Batson and Councilor Pious Ali did not respond requests for interviews on Monday. Councilor Belinda Ray, who chairs the committee, said she was not available.

City officials are working on plans to build a new shelter to replace its existing shelter on Oxford Street in Bayside, which they say is outdated and unsafe for both staff and guests.

The existing shelter is a former three-story apartment and attached auto garage, where people sleep on floor mats. It routinely exceeds its 154-person capacity, forcing the city to find overflow space. An additional 75 floor mats are set up at Preble Street and additional space in the city’s general assistance office are also used when needed.

The council voted in June to build a new homeless shelter on Riverside Street, a move that continues to be opposed by area residents and homeless advocates who fear that the new location is too far from services and jobs on the peninsula. Men and women staying at the current shelter also have expressed concerns about the new location and its distance from downtown, even predicting that people will find places to sleep outside rather than travel back and forth to Riverside.

City staff have said they plan to offer a shuttle service to supplement an existing bus route to help clients make it to their appointments.

Unlike the current facility, the new shelter is expected to include a host of onsite services, including a soup kitchen, medical clinic, community police station and areas for counseling. It also will have actual beds, rather than floor mats.

The committee took up a potential capacity limit at its last meeting, but was unable to reach an agreement.

Ali wanted more information about what the city will do when people arrive at the shelter after the cap has been reached before he decides how to vote. He suggested that the committee let the council as a whole set the capacity.

Up until now, city staff has been using informal advice given by the council last year to create a shelter with up to 150 beds, plus space for an additional 25 beds for overflow. But advocates have pointed out that demand for beds already routinely exceeds that amount.

There has been a reduction in the number of adults seeking shelter over the last two years. The average number of people seeking space at the Oxford Street Shelter so far in 2019 has been 208, compared to 216 in 2017. But the demand varies widely, from a high of 271 on two nights in January and February to a low of only 135 beds one night in August.

The slight drop in average nightly use has come as shelter staff have issued more criminal trespass orders to prevent individuals who break rules from returning. The orders, which can prevent someone from using the shelter for up to a year, increased by 50 percent last year, from 84 in 2018 to 126 through early October. However, trespass orders dropped by nearly 28 percent at other community shelters, from 86 to 62.

A breakdown of trespass orders provided to council showed that 43 were issued after an assault on a guest, 19 after an assault on a staff member, 16 issued after a threat to staff and 10 because of hate speech.

City Manager Jon Jennings said Oct. 22 that move is part of its efforts to protect staff from increasingly violent behavior fueled by an increase in methamphetamine use. “It certainly is a much more threatening behavior,” Jennings said.

Batson, a nurse at Maine Medical Center, said he’s seen a rise in aggressive behavior because of meth as well, calling it “a very real thing.”

Officials at the nonprofit social service provider Preble Street did not respond to requests for an interview on Monday about the capacity debate. Donna Yellen, the nonprofit’s deputy director, said at an Oct. 8 committee meeting that there were still periods over the last year when more than 250 people were in the city’s emergency shelter.

Yellen said that one of the reasons Maine regularly has lower rates of unsheltered homeless people when compared to other states is largely because Portland’s commitment to help anyone in need.

“Please, give considerable community process before changing this policy that will absolutely change the face of our city and it will become one that none of us will be proud of,” she said.

Ray, the chair of the council committee, said at the Oct. 29 meeting that setting a capacity at the new shelter would also help the city solicit financial support from the state and from other communities in the region that rely on Portland’s shelter to help residents. She did not think that city staff would ever allow people in need to go without shelter.

“We are everybody’s overflow,” Ray said. “Setting a cap helps to give us leverage to get other people involved in a way we haven’t been able to in the past.”

Apple pledges $2.5bn to address US’s California housing crisis!

Apple pledges $2.5bn to address US’s California housing crisis

As homelessness reaches chronic levels in California, Apple and other tech companies pledge funds to fix the problem.

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Technology giant Apple says it will set aside $2.5bn to provide affordable homes in California which has more homeless people in the state than anywhere else in the United States.

Tech companies have been blamed for contributing to the state’s housing crisis as they set up shop there, pushing house prices up beyond the reach of many residents.

“State of Emergency”: Special Report on California’s Criminalization of Growing Homeless Encampment

OCTOBER 25, 2019

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Kansas City Builds Tiny House Village for Homeless Veterans

FEBRUARY 5, 2019 AT 1:30 PM
Kansas City refuses to leave veterans on the streets, builds them their own “town” for free

Approximately 40 percent of homeless men are veterans, according to The National Coalition for Homeless Veterans.

Nearly half of those suffer from mental illness such as post traumatic stress disorder and another 50 percent struggle with substance abuse.

While government programs do exist to help veterans re-acclimate to civilian life, too many fall through the cracks.

So the citizens of Kansas City and other concerned Americans have decided to take matters into their own hands.

By donating to a private, non-profit organization called Veterans Community Project, founded by fellow veterans, they’re helping build tiny-house communities for homeless veterans around the country.

The first “Veterans Village” was recently completed in Kansas City.

The neighborhood of 50 tiny houses gives struggling veterans the perfect blend of community and privacy, to help them feel more connected and safe. Many struggled to live in group shelters because of PTSD.

“We’re pulling these guys out of the trenches in their battle and saving their lives because they would have done the exact same for us,” co-founder and fellow veteran Brandon Mixon told CNN.

Mixon faced challenges with city officials who didn’t want “another trailer park” built in the city. But because of the overwhelming community support the project received, the city eventually gave in.

In the center of the tiny-house neighborhood is a community center, where the residents can get free health care, mental health care, dental care, and assistance finding jobs.

The houses come stocked with food and household necessities, which can be restocked as needed, until the veterans can get back on their feet again.

The founders say hundreds of cities are interested in replicating the project. The charity’s next stop will be in Nashville, Tennessee.

To donate, visit VeteransCommunityProject.org.

Good Samaritan picks up hotel tab for 70 homeless in Chicago

Good Samaritan picks up hotel tab for 70 homeless in Chicago

Ice forms along the shore of Lake Michigan before sunrise, Thursday, Jan. 31, 2019, in Chicago. (AP Photo/Kiichiro Sato)

A good Samaritan offered to pay for hotel rooms for 70 homeless people in Chicago who were camped out in tents amid the bitter cold that blanketed Chicago.

The offer came after the Chicago Fire Department on Wednesday confiscated nearly 100 propane tanks given the group to keep them warm as temperatures sank to negative 22 (negative 20 Celsius). The department acted after one of the donated tanks exploded.

Salvation Army spokeswoman Jacqueline Rachev said city officials told the organization about their actions at the camp. The Salvation Army was about to move the people to a warming center when the city called again and informed them of the gesture.

Rachev was not sure of the identity of the good Samaritan and only knew the hotel was on the city’s South Side.

Maine: Lawrence High School students make blankets for hospice patients, and the Good Shepherd Food Bank gets $33,000.

Students in Lawrence High School’s JMG program will make more than 35 blankets to be donated to hospice patients in the Waterville area

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This holiday season, Mainers in hospice care will be receiving a gift, but it will be coming from someone they have never met.

The students in the Lawrence High School’s “Jobs for Maine’s Graduates” program, also known as JMG, are making blankets that will be donated to hospice patients in the Waterville area.

“I think this project is great. I think it gives people in the home comfort and just a little something extra for the holidays,” said Rilee Bessey, a junior at Lawrence High School.

Student plan to make more than 35 blankets to be donated. They are also making holiday cards to be distributed to the patients.

“My students are always looking for ways to give back. They really care about others and doing more things in our community to help those in need,” said JMG specialist at Lawrence High School Katherine Wood.

The students in Wood’s JMG class have worked more than 500 hours doing community service in 2018.

“Understand that not everybody has what you may have,” said Lawrence High School junior Bryson Dostie. “Everybody needs to get a little bit of something around the holidays,” Dostie added.

JMG is program across Maine in 131 schools. The organization’s students worked more than 30,000 hours this year doing community service projects.

And…

Maine’s largest hunger relief organization receives final installment of $100,000 promise!
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The Good Shepherd Food Bank received a check for $33,000 from the Maine Credit Union League to complete a three-year contribution to the food bank

The largest hunger relief origination in Maine now has in its hands, the final part of a $100,000 promise of support.

The donation comes from the Maine Credit Union League who promised in 2016 to provide the food bank with $100,000. Today the MCUL presented a check for $33,000 at the George J. Mitchell Elementary School in Waterville. The Good Shepherd Food Bank donates goods to the school’s food pantry.

At an assembly Wednesday morning, students in the school shared essays in front of their classmates about what the school’s food pantry means to them.

“To hear from students who are seeing it in their classmates and some of them likely experiencing themselves, I think that really hits home,” said Ethan Minton, the Good Shepherd Major Gift Officer.

The George J. Mitchell school food pantry has received more 60,000 meals worth of food from Good Shepherd since 2013.

“It helps highlight how much of a community effort this is and how aware people are of the hunger problem in the state of Maine and what people can do to help alleviate that problem,” said Tim Brooks, the Vice President of Corporate Marketing for the Maine Credit Union League.

The MCUL’s Campaign for Ending Hunger has raised over $8 million since starting the program in 1990.  In 2017, the credit union raised $740,000 for the cause.