PORTLAND — It has become almost a nightly occurrence. Shortly before 9 p.m., city staff opens the Preble Street Resource Center.

Homeless men who can’t find a space at the filled-to-capacity Oxford Street Homeless Shelter take refuge there, sleeping on 30 mats laid on the floor. By 6 a.m., they all must leave.

It’s not an ideal situation for anyone involved. City staff must stay the night, and the homeless don’t get the resources that other city shelters provide.

But it’s a snapshot of the state of homelessness in Portland, which has reached “historic” levels, Doug Gardner, director of the city’s Health and Human Services Department, said Tuesday.

The city’s homeless shelter population was up 12 percent in July compared with July 2010, according to statistics compiled by Gardner’s department.

“We’ve seen a consistent increase in every area – men, women, families,” Gardner said at Tuesday’s meeting of the city’s Health and Recreation Committee. “Earlier this year, we were providing emergency shelter just one or two or three or four times per month. Then it was once or twice per week. Now, for the last three weeks, it’s basically been every night.”

The number of families using the shelters had increased from 34 to 40 from July 2010 to last month. The number of individuals had increased from 225 to 247 over the same period. Those are the highest levels the city has seen, Gardner said.

What is especially troubling is that Portland’s shelter populations don’t typically rise during the summer months, he said.

He attributed part of the increase to the economy.

“There are more people using the shelter who have gotten laid off,” Gardner said. “We used to have only two or three able-bodied people (per night). Now we have about 50.”

But other factors have had a larger impact, Gardner’s statistics suggest. The shelters have seen a rise in immigrants seeking asylum whose visas have expired, so they can’t get jobs.

But the largest problem appears to be that homeless people from other communities are coming to Portland. The number of out-of-towners using Portland shelters has increased 44 percent over the past four years.

In July, nine out-of-state families – ranging in size from three to nine people, and from as far away as California, Texas and Kentucky – used the city’s shelters. Families and individuals from Gorham, South Portland, Westbrook and other nearby communities have also sought refuge at Portland shelters.

Gardner said Portland’s reputation of having jobs and services attracts outsiders. But City Councilor Cheryl Leeman said she’s spoken with homeless people whose home communities, unable to provide adequate services themselves, have directed them to Portland.

Leeman said the city must insist on a regional approach to homelessness that has surrounding communities contribute resources to help with the problem.

“What we’re doing is not sustainable,” she said. “There has to be some responsibility from surrounding communities with regards to not having a safety net for these people.”


Staff Writer Jason Singer can be contacted at 791-6437 or at: [email protected]