On June 5, the Portland City Council will take up a proposal to expand shelter zoning in the city. As chair of the Council’s Health and Human Services Committee, I am pleased to sponsor this ordinance change.

It is the first step toward helping Portland better serve those in need while moving more people from homelessness to stable housing.

To be clear, the goal of expanding shelter zoning is not to replicate the Oxford Street Shelter elsewhere in the city.

It is widely recognized that this facility has far exceeded its capacity. The three-story multi-unit building was never intended to provide sleeping quarters for 154 people each night.

In 1989, it was established as a 50-bed facility, and back then there were, in fact, beds. Today, shelter stayers sleep on mats on the floor – 154 of them spaced 10 inches apart.

Shelter staff must travel up and down staircases and around corners to do “bed” counts or check on guests, and they have to determine on an almost nightly basis where they will situate women and men in order to most effectively use the space.

Further, because of the lack of a sufficient day room and on-site services, shelter stayers must pack up their belongings every morning and vacate the premises until the mats open up again the next evening. This means that people who are trying to get back on their feet must attempt to find work or hold down a job and search for a new place to live while toting all of their belongings from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. every day.

In a new shelter facility with adequate space and programming, that will no longer be the case. But we need a place to construct that new facility.

Right now, an emergency shelter can be sited only in what is called the B3 zone in Portland. The B3 is the Downtown Business Zone, and it includes sections of Bayside, Parkside, the Old Port and the Arts District. This represents a very small portion of the city.

In the expanded zoning, shelters would continue to be allowed in the B3 zone, but they would also be allowed in the B4, B5, IH, IM and IL zones. Yes, some of these are industrial zones, but don’t be misled by the word “industrial.”

The Rising Tide Brewery on Fox Street is in an industrial zone (IL), directly across the street from athletic fields and substantial housing.

The new housing-first project, Huston Commons on Bishop Street, is in a former industrial zone (IM) that was rezoned to allow the project to be completed.

The area around Dougherty Field between St. John and St. James streets is an industrial zone (IM), as are large tracts of land surrounding Morrill’s Corner (IL, IM and IH).

Industrial zones are not by definition isolated parcels dominated by factories or trucking operations. Nor are they synonymous with industrial parks, as at least one headline and more than one erroneous email has claimed.

In any case, the purpose of this zoning change is to create more possibilities for locating an emergency shelter – and we are talking about emergency shelter here, not permanent housing.

Getting people into stable permanent housing as quickly as possible is a crucial tactic for addressing homelessness and the cornerstone of the housing-first approach. The city of Portland is a practitioner of the housing-first approach. In fact, our excellent shelter staff has found permanent housing for over 170 individuals in the last 10 months.

They will continue to do this tremendous work, but it will be much easier for them to do it from within a facility that is designed to provide not just a place to sleep, but also a place to find stability as people seek to transition from homelessness to stable housing.

When it comes time to choose a location and design a facility, numerous people will be involved: people who have experienced or are experiencing homelessness; advocates and experts; city staff; community members, and people from other cities and towns who have built successful shelters. Together we can create a facility that will best serve people experiencing homelessness and move more people into permanent housing.

But we are not at the design stage yet. First, we must address our zoning, which is what the proposal coming before the City Council will do.

For more information on the proposal, see the backup materials with the council’s June 5 meeting agenda, available at portlandmaine.gov/ agendacenter.