The Portland City Council voted unanimously Monday to create a task force charged to conduct an eight-month study about creating one or more new homeless shelters in the city as a way to decrease costs and improve services.

The options range from a consolidated shelter in the Bayside area to several smaller shelters throughout the city. The group also will examine whether the city, which is the only municipality in Maine that runs homeless shelters, should contract operations out to a private entity.

“The study in front of us is not site-specific,” said Councilor Edward Suslovic, who chairs the public safety committee that forwarded the recommendation to the council.

Monday’s vote came nearly a month after the LePage administration released a blistering critique of the city’s homeless shelters. An audit, conducted in January and issued on Feb. 20, revealed that the city has been billing the state’s General Assistance program for people who do not qualify financially, and for administrative costs of operating the shelter.

While maintaining that it had been operating under a longstanding agreement with the state, the city since has indicated it will change its practices. The changes could cost the city at least $820,000 a year and may result in people being turned away from the shelter.

The city now operates two emergency shelters: an adult shelter on Oxford Street and a family shelter on Chestnut Street. When the adult shelter is full, an overflow shelter is opened at the nonprofit Preble Street, which also operates a soup kitchen during the day.


Occasionally, the city’s General Assistance office is used as a waiting area when the overflow shelter is full.

A task force formed to study ways to prevent and end homelessness issued a series of recommendations in 2012. The group called for scattering any new emergency shelters throughout the city or Greater Portland region rather than building a larger, consolidated shelter.

Although the new task force, to be composed of homeless advocates, city staff, residents and business people, is not looking at any particular site, Suslovic said that having scattered services – such as soup kitchens, shelters and counseling – isn’t cost-effective and is more detrimental to the neighborhoods.

“We’re well aware of the negative impacts on the surrounding neighborhood by having the operation we currently have,” Suslovic said, “causing folks to be shuffling – and dare I say shuffling – from various locations in all kinds of weather.”

The city’s homeless population has increased dramatically since the Great Recession, with people lining up for hours to get a thin foam mat at the Oxford Street shelter.

From fiscal year 2007 to 2013, the number of adult shelter bed uses jumped by 50 percent, from 74,136 to 111,283, according to city records. Last year, there were 107,909 bed uses.


Dawn Stiles, director of health and human services for the city, said in a staff memo that the city could save $675,448 to $813,358 by building a consolidated shelter. However, that estimate was derived last summer, before the city said it would begin administering its General Assistance program in accordance with the LePage administrations’ wishes, Stiles said.

The city could benefit from a bill the Legislature is considering that would earmark $3.5 million for emergency shelters in the state.

Early discussions about building a consolidated shelter focused on 65 Hanover St., but Suslovic said that site was too small for the 300-bed facility. The public safety committee also expressed opposition to a new shelter of that size, he said.

On Feb. 11, the council’s development committee directed city staff to begin seeking proposals for workforce housing at the public works site at 65 Hanover St. Workforce housing is not federally subsidized for low-income buyers, but the homes are sold at below-market prices.

That proposal prompted Mayor Michael Brennan to push for a re-examination of the city’s longstanding policy of letting its committees solicit proposals for city lands and bring a final recommendation to the council.

The differing visions for 65 Hanover St. came to a head during a workshop Feb. 23, when Brennan said he was concerned that the development committee’s request for proposals for housing on Hanover Street would “preempt” the city’s ability to study whether a consolidated homeless shelter would work at the site.

Although the city attorney confirmed that the committee had the authority to issue the request for proposals, Brennan said he hoped staff wouldn’t do so until the shelter study was conducted. As of Monday, the housing request for proposals had not been issued.

The council will meet at a future date to examine whether it wants to continue allowing committees to solicit proposals without the full council’s approval. A date was not immediately set.

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