April 21, 2013

Tightened policy eases crowding at Portland shelter

Before, the homeless could stay indefinitely. Now to do that, they must be working to find housing.

By Tom Bell tbell@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

PORTLAND - Since the city first opened the Oxford Street Shelter for the homeless nearly 24 years ago, staffers have allowed people to stay as long as they wanted, no questions asked.

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Alan Garland, originally from Bangor, reads on a mat this month after setting up his bedding at the Oxford Street Shelter in Portland. Under a new policy, Garland had to meet with a counselor and agree on a plan to find permanent housing.

Photos by Tim Greenway/Staff Photographer

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Before, the homeless could stay indefinitely. Now to do that, they must be working to find housing.

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But now the city is changing that policy as it struggles to provide shelter for record numbers of homeless people. A month ago, the staff began telling people they can no longer stay at the shelter indefinitely unless they also agree to work on a plan to find permanent housing.

The new policy is already showing signs of success, said Josh O'Brien, director of the Oxford Street Shelter.

Fifty-four people were placed in permanent housing in March, an increase of nearly 30 percent over the number of placements in February. Usually, the shelter population increases in the spring, but so far this spring the numbers have gone down.

In March, the shelter was so full that, for half the nights, people were sleeping in conference room chairs in the city's Refugee Services office, including one night when a record 36 people slept in chairs. But so far this month, the shelter has had enough room each night for everyone to have a bed.

Requiring clients to meet with a housing counselor in order to stay in the shelter indefinitely means case managers and counselors can spend less time tracking clients down and encouraging them to get help, and more time on finding them permanent housing, said Rob Parritt, who supervises counseling services at the shelter.

"It doesn't seem like much, but it's a seismic change for the city," he said.

The new policy also applies to the Florence House, an emergency shelter for women. Case managers at the Preble Street Resource Center, which runs a day shelter, helped develop the policy and are working with the staffs at both Florence House and Oxford Street to help implement it. Homeless advocates also have been involved in shaping the new policy.

Those who are homeless have mixed reactions to the city's change.

"It's a good policy. It gets people out of the shelter," said Lawrence Tiller, 23, from Bangor, who said he has been homeless off and on for more than three years. "I want to get out as soon as possible."

Charles Jones, 55, who first became homeless five years ago, said he doesn't think the change will save the city any money because people banned from the shelter will end up on the street and possibly need more expensive services from the city.

"If they put you out in the street, they will still have to pick you up in an ambulance" if you get sick or injured, he said.

Alan Garland, 44, questions whether the new policy works for people like him who plan to be at the shelter only for a short time before they move on.

Garland said he plans to leave in a few weeks for work in Louisiana, so he doesn't need permanent housing in the Portland area. But under the new policy, he received a suspension letter requiring him to either meet with a counselor about housing or leave the shelter.

He said he now checks in frequently with the YMCA to see if a room is available, but he is just "going through the motions" so he won't lose his bed at the shelter. He also doesn't want to find a place to rent and then have to break the lease when he leaves for the out-of-state job, because he worries it will hinder his ability to rent an apartment in the future.

"It's a monumental waste of my time and their resources," he said.

(Continued on page 2)

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Today's poll: Oxford Street Shelter

Do you agree with Portland's policy changes at the Oxford Street Shelter?

Yes

No

View Results