BELFAST — “It’s the most significant issue in Waldo County,” said several different speakers at a community conversation held Nov. 19 at Belfast Soup Kitchen.

Drugs, taxes, crime — all significant issues; all symptoms or consequences of the rising tide of homelessness in Waldo County.

“It’s mind-boggling to some of us that so many people are experiencing homelessness, or are at risk for homelessness, right here in our neighborhoods,” said Robert Johansen, board chair of Family Promise of MidCoast Maine, an organization whose mission is assisting the homeless. “(At) last count, 235 families in the Midcoast area are experiencing homelessness. There are a lot of homeless in our area.”

Family Promise was one of four organizations to host the Nov. 19 event. Belfast Soup Kitchen, But Still I Am One and Waldo County Community Action Partners all share a place on the front lines in the fight against homelessness.

“There’s a lot of hidden homelessness in our community, said Donna Kelley, president and CEO of WCAP, an organization that delivers services to the homeless. Kelley is also a clinical social worker who has delivered outreach services to the homeless in every Maine county.

“The hardest communities to serve are those with hidden homelessness,” Kelley said. “We have no dedicated homeless system, we have no (homeless) shelter. We do have outreach. The biggest problem is not the lack of care or dedicated service providers. The biggest problem is the lack of affordable housing.”

Kelley has developed homeless housing throughout the state and noted the “spigot” for homeless housing development dried up a decade ago. She added that emergency rental assistance funding programs that were created during the pandemic are also running out of funds.

Kelley has created additional positions at WCAP that are dedicated to homeless issues. This year alone, WCAP has served 48 households with rental assistance. Of those, 31 were homeless households that stayed at motels and hotels. Eight children were among those served. WCAP also serves “many, many” more that are housing insecure.

“We push out about $45,000 to $50,000 a week into the Waldo County community,” Kelley said. “It’s not enough.”

WCAP, along with Belfast Soup Kitchen, But I Am Still One and Family Promise all work together, in partnership with local general assistance offices, schools and health care organizations, to stem a rising tide of homelessness in Waldo County.

“It’s a huge issue in our area,” said Belfast Soup Kitchen CEO Cherie Merrill. “I can see it getting worse as the economy continues to hurt working families. We see more working families coming in having to choose between paying their bills, or food. As Donna said, affordable housing is the biggest issue in Waldo County right now.”

Actual numbers of the homeless are hard to pin down. The shame and stigma attached to this circumstance prevent many from requesting services or trusting those who provide them. Many of the experts at the Nov. 19 event agreed that homelessness was underreported by as much as 50%. This is particularly evident among young people, who won’t attempt to access potential services until they are necessary.

Emergency rental assistance and shelters are just part of the solution. The goal of the agencies involved with the community conversation is to secure transitional and/or low-income housing options for those in need. For that to happen, it will take a community.

Meeting guests were urged to become the “squeaky” wheel with their town boards and councils.

“We are ready to be part of the solution,” Kelley said. “All of the organizations here today are working to address this problem, but we need everyone — churches, schools, neighbors and communities to make it work.”