AUGUSTA, Maine — Four years ago, Ben DeMerchant stood outside a homeless shelter here, trying to muster the courage to go inside and claim his bed.
The 36-year-old Fort Fairfield native had been a sergeant in the Marine Corps. He served for four years and was deployed twice to Afghanistan. Life after service was a struggle, leading to drug addiction, alcoholism and a short spell in jail before he was given a second chance by the state’s veterans court in Augusta and entered a treatment program.
There was a Kennebec County residency requirement for that. Since DeMerchant couldn’t find a place in Augusta, he was given a bed at the Bread of Life Ministries homeless shelter on Hospital Street, which was the first in the state to cater only to veterans.
At that time, he was one of 14 people at the shelter. This week, he will host 14 friends and family members at his new home in Waterville for a Thanksgiving dinner.
“It’s the greatest thing in the entire world,” a beaming DeMerchant said.
In the years before the COVID-19 pandemic, Maine was having success leveraging federal and state resources to get homeless veterans like DeMerchant into stable housing. Overall homelessness has jumped since then, leaving the state once again trying to get ahead of the problem even though it has a playbook for doing so.
Veteran homelessness nationally has dropped by more than half since 2010, when the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs announced an emphasis on ending it. Maine was seeing steady gains at 116 in 2019, 103 in 2020 and a low of 91 in 2021. Last year, it shot back up to 243 but steadied to 123 during a point-in-time count in early 2023.
That increase, driven by the inflated costs of living that came about during the pandemic, tracks with general increases in homelessness since then, noted Scott Thistle, a spokesperson for MaineHousing, which along with social service agencies rolled out a goal in August of ending veteran homelessness by 2025.
An initiative from Preble Street, a Portland-based social services agency with a statewide veteran housing program, recently undertook a “housing surge” in which it provided $1,000 incentives to landlords along with a risk mitigation fund. The program was set to end on Veterans Day but was extended for another 100 days.
“We’ve gone from housing a veteran every two days to housing a veteran almost every day in the last 100 days,” said Laura Clark, who leads Preble Street’s veteran housing program.
Part of why Maine has had more success in housing veterans than it has with the general population was interagency communication and close case management is prioritized. That is spearheaded by VA Maine Healthcare System, the federal veterans hospital in Togus, just outside of Augusta.
“We’re all in communication daily,” Laura Briggs, a former Kennebec County jail lieutenant who has been Bread of Life’s director of operations since 2019.
“Average joes” may see one doctor about physical ailments and another about mental ones, and those doctors are unlikely to ever talk to each other, Briggs noted. It is different at the VA, and Bread of Life also has liaisons that can connect veterans with a range of available resources.
While going back to school at the University of Maine in Augusta, DeMerchant said he met a Purple Heart recipient who was shot in battle but had not even heard of Togus before, something that Briggs said was common in part because many veterans often wrongly feel they should solve their issues alone.
At the shelter, DeMerchant learned the basic skills that come with living alongside other veterans experiencing housing insecurity or homelessness. They included tolerance and cleaning up after yourself. He also worked with a case manager to find a new place to stay, learn to budget, get his driver’s license back and pay back bills and fines.
That support system was key. DeMerchant credited his mother with helping him recover. He still maintains a friendship with one of the Marines he served with, who is now married and living in upstate New York after dealing with addiction once he left the military. On Facebook, he often sees a dwindling number of people he served with.
“A lot of the people I deployed with are either in active addiction or dead, honestly,” DeMerchant said.