What seems like a lifetime ago, when I ran for the Portland City Council, I was proud to say that I was a health care professional. This was a perspective that the council lacked. I am often able to bring my health care expertise to the committees I serve on – including the Health and Human Services Committee – as well as the council as a whole. That expertise has led me to have grave concerns about the proposed emergency shelter in Nason’s Corner.

For proponents of the new shelter, on the Barron Center property on Brighton Avenue, the key feature is that several services will be offered at the same location. We saw a similar situation years ago at Preble Street, where many services were co-located. Unfortunately, the economy declined and some free services were discontinued. The same thing could happen with the new shelter: If the third-party services were ever discontinued, the city would be forced to add these costs to our operational budget in order to maintain them, as they are pivotal in this shelter model and location. This is an issue that has been questioned at the committee level, but has not been explored publicly.

Furthermore, some people who access emergency shelter services have polysubstance abuse disorder, but that is not something unique to the homeless population. The opioid epidemic is real and unfortunately many people, some – but not all – homeless, are victims of it. I have worked very closely with this population at Maine Medical Center.

The thoughts weighing heavy on my mind are of people who are using who may overdose or develop complications. At the proposed Brighton Avenue location, they will be almost as far from an acute care facility (i.e., a hospital) as one can be while still being within the city limits. If someone requires naloxone, this will absolutely make the situation that much more dangerous, as this is far from any hospital and establishments that are familiar with this epidemic – businesses or professionals who are trained and carry the life-saving drug.

They will also equally be as far from the incredible services of organizations like Milestone and Amistad. If you are not familiar with them, I can’t stress enough the great work these organizations do and implore you to read about their work. Ultimately, I anticipate that sufferers from substance use disorder may consume outside the shelter. Addiction is a disease, and people who are addicted and do not want to quit – or who want to but lack access to resources – will continue to use.

The other option I see is that people will stay downtown: Businesses, people, food establishments and services are all closer to the downtown district – not Bayside necessarily, but places a lot closer to the peninsula. I have grave concerns, especially in the warmer months, that many people may not want to sit on a 20-minute Metro with multiple stops to get to the shelter when one could sleep outside and remain downtown. I think it would be doing a disservice to completely take away any remaining shelter service from the downtown area, as this is where so many utilize services, shops and a sense of community.

We should make access to this shelter and the services it may offer more easily accessible, not create hurdles. We should not require a person with a disability, a mobility problem or a mental health issue to try to find where the city shuttle is, or figure out the Metro route and sit on a bus for who knows how long in the heavy Brighton traffic.

Moving forward, I am interested in flipping this proposal on its head. It is clear to me that the single-shelter model, although more cost-friendly, is so intensely location sensitive that it is not the best plan for the city. Both in the field of health care and on the council’s Health and Human Services Committee, we talk about national best practices a lot. Well, it has been proven that the most effective model is that of smaller shelters distributed throughout the community that can be tailored to a specific demographic. The impact on the neighborhood is minimized compared to the massive proposal we have in front of us today. Smaller shelters integrated into the city help to alleviate the concerns we all share about predatory behavior, isolation and an already-vulnerable demographic being pushed to the outskirts of the city.

Lately I have been trying to observe this principle: “When you feel the need to speed up, slow down.” We as a city need to look at this comprehensively and thoughtfully and, most importantly, take our time to create the best situation possible for all stakeholders.