Portland officials are reconsidering how and where the city provides emergency shelter for thousands of homeless people who crowd into aging, converted apartment buildings each year and sometimes disrupt life in the downtown neighborhood.

The city’s shelters are in Bayside, a neighborhood that is beginning to see some development activity and where the city is planning to sell the buildings used by its public works department to make way for private redevelopment.

In addition to having a shelter overcrowded with people who in many cases struggle with mental illness and substance abuse issues, city staff are worried about a rise in predominately young people who hang out and do drugs around the shelter but don’t go inside or seek city services, officials say.

The physical layout of the primary adult shelter – a three-story building with numerous small rooms and nooks – has long been seen as a problem and potential danger to staff who monitor about 150 clients sleeping on floor mats each night. The city also uses a network of overflow spaces on a regular basis, providing floor space by moving furniture in nearby buildings.

Last week, city officials toured two emergency shelters in Massachusetts to begin a process that could lead to major shelter reforms. However, it could take months before any specific proposals are put forward to the City Council.

“The neighborhood feels as though it’s at a breaking point,” City Manager Jon Jennings said during one of Wednesday’s tours. “Our shelter is an abomination and it’s inhumane. It’s not safe and it puts our staff in dangerous situations.”


Jennings, along with social services staff and councilors serving on the Health and Human Services Committee, toured the 97-bed Caspar shelter in Cambridge and Father Bill’s in Quincy. Both shelters are operated by nonprofits and serve people who are actively psychotic or using drugs or alcohol.

In both cases, the locations, layouts and services varied greatly from Portland’s shelter system:

Both Massachusetts shelters are in single-story buildings that are easily monitored with security cameras and on-site staff, whereas Portland’s adult shelter is in a three-story building without cameras.

The Caspar shelter is located on the Massachusetts Institute of Technology campus in Cambridge, and Father Bill’s is in a former Department of Motor Vehicles building in an industrial area of Quincy.

Both shelters have in-house soup kitchens and offer daytime services, whether counseling or shelter, whereas Portland’s shelter closes during the day and clients access a soup kitchen and day shelter blocks away.

Both shelters serve clients with ties to the communities they serve, whereas Portland takes in clients from all over Maine, the United States and beyond.


The tours prompted councilors and staff to talk about the possibility of adopting some of those policies in Portland, including some sort of residency requirement to access the shelter and creating new shelters in other neighborhoods.

Directors of the two Massachusetts shelters said staff works with clients to establish ties to the services area with documents such as a high school or elementary school transcript, a birth certificate, a previous lease or an address on a state-issued ID. People who cannot prove their connection to the service area may only stay for a few nights.

Portland Councilor Belinda Ray said she was interested in looking into similar requirements in Portland, where two-thirds of the clients come from other Maine towns or another state or country.

Ray, whose district includes the shelter, suggested that surrounding communities could opt into the city’s shelter system, as long as they agreed to shoulder some of the operational and capital costs of the shelter.

“I don’t think it’s the city of Portland’s responsibility to end homelessness for the entire region,” she said.

Ray also voiced support for changing the zoning to allow shelters in more neighborhoods.


In Portland, emergency shelters are only allowed in the downtown business area, generally between Franklin, Commercial, State and Lancaster streets.

Portland Shelter Director Rob Parritt said in an interview Friday that the idea of requiring other towns to chip in for the shelter costs is worth exploring, but state and federal funding sources would prohibit the city from creating too many barriers to access services.

“I definitely think those conversations need to be had,” Parritt said, noting that South Portland and Westbrook are the only communities that reimburse the city for residents accessing its shelter.

Jennings, the city manager, said he also was curious about residency requirements, as well as a round-the-clock model that included meals.

Jennings said he would also look to the city’s nonprofit groups to perhaps share the responsibility of sheltering those in need, rather than having that fall on the city.

Any effort to remake the city’s shelter system would involve Preble Street, a Portland-based nonprofit social services agency that runs a soup kitchen and day shelter a few blocks from the city shelter.


Development activity has put increasing pressure on the city and Preble Street to address unruly behavior in the neighborhood, or to relocate altogether.

Preble Street Executive Director Mark Swann said the agency is willing to relocate, but such a move would require coordination with the city, so that no one loses services.

“We’ve outgrown our space, and our role in the community has changed dramatically,” Swann said. “We’re just overwhelmed by the numbers.”

Swann noted that, over the years, seven other shelters have closed down, primarily because funding sources have dried up. The failure to expand Medicaid in Maine, as well as changes to the state’s General Assistance program, are making it more difficult to deal with increasingly erratic behaviors associated with substance abuse and mental illness, he said.

Originally envisioned as a soup kitchen and daytime social services center, Preble Street now provides overnight shelter space for up to 75 people whenever the city shelter is full.

“More people are coming to our facility for services than we ever would have imagined 25 years ago,” Swann said. “There’s no funding to do this kind of work.”

Directors at both Massachusetts shelters were impressed with Portland’s success in finding housing for the chronically homeless. The challenge for Portland is that the number of people coming into the shelter is outpacing the housing placements.

For example, the Oxford Street Shelter placed 19 people into permanent housing in August, but took in 136 people.


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