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.

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.

Portland city staff has advocated for the change for years, said City Councilor Ed Suslovic, who chairs the council’s Public Safety, Health and Human Services Committee.

The City Council, however, had been resistant because advocates for the homeless opposed establishing barriers for shelter access, arguing that barriers would simply force people into the street, Suslovic said.

He said that opposition has changed, and advocates now support the policy because the city’s shelter system has become so overcrowded.

Between fiscal years 2008 and 2012, annual shelter bed usage in the city — the total number of beds occupied each night for the year — grew 36 percent, from 99,016 to 134,202.

One way to deal with overcrowding is to build another emergency shelter, but nobody sees that as a good solution, said Jon Bradley, associate director at Preble Street. Rather, it’s better to focus on getting people permanent housing and helping them address the issues that pushed them into homelessness in the first place, such as substance addiction.

The policy change is helping in that effort because it makes the work of case managers and housing counselors more efficient, Bradley said.

Moreover, Suslovic said, the previous open-door policy enabled people to avoid taking steps to improve their lives.

“Simply asking people to come and stay as long as you’d like on the floor, 18 inches from your neighbor, is not helping people improve the situation,” he said.

Some homeless people have worried that the new policy could be so severe it would be “abusive,” but it is designed to be flexible so shelter staff can take into account each person’s individual situation, said Jim Devine, 59, a former homeless person who serves on the board of Homeless Voices for Justice. Devine helped develop the new policy, which has been in the works for nearly a year.

“It tries to make housing counseling more available and encourages people to participate,” he said. “The bottom line: If you are totally uncooperative and won’t participate at all, shelter services ultimately could be denied. That is a last resort.”

The policy works this way: People arriving at the shelter are told they have seven days to meet with a housing counselor at the shelter or a case manager at Preble Street to develop a plan to obtain permanent housing or services. Such a plan, for example, could stipulate that they apply for a subsidized housing voucher from the city, obtain documents they need to qualify for Social Security benefits, or apply to be treated for a substance abuse or mental health problem.

As long as people stay at the shelter, they must show they are actively working on the plan.

Those who don’t work with a counselor are given notice to meet with one within 48 hours or lose access to the shelter.

If they still do not meet with a counselor, they are given a “suspension of services” letter that states: “Shelter is meant to be a temporary, emergency resource. To date, we have not been able to identify any prohibitive barriers you may have to achieving more suitable housing via a housing plan, and our outreach efforts to work with you on a housing plan have been unsuccessful.”

People who are on notice will receive the letter when they enter the shelter for the evening, and are told that will be their last night at the shelter unless they meet with a housing counselor the next day.

Shelter officials will take into consideration whether a person faces other obstacles that would prevent him or her from meeting with a counselor, such as a mental health or substance abuse problem, said O’Brien, the director at Oxford Street.

People are given suspension letters in private. Since March 27, the city has issued 29 letters of suspension. So far, 20 of those people have met with staff to develop a housing plan.

“As soon as they want to re-engage, the suspension is lifted immediately,” O’Brien said.

Tom Bell can be contacted at 791-6369 or at:

[email protected]