Day Whitehead admits that he never really thought much about the issue of homelessness until the city of Portland unveiled a proposal last month to build a new emergency shelter in his neighborhood.

The 67-year-old and his wife have lived on Holm Avenue in the Nason’s Corner neighborhood for 34 years and raised three children in a modest, well-kept Cape Cod-style home, where a child’s basketball hoop sits in the driveway for his four grandchildren.

“I don’t go downtown much,” said Whitehead. “My problem is I don’t know enough about the homeless plight to say why we need this. I just know, seeing what’s down there, they promise will not show up here.”

Down there is the Bayside neighborhood, which has housed a cluster of social services agencies for decades, including the city’s Oxford Street Shelter for homeless adults. In recent years, the area also has seen a rise in crime and aggressive and anti-social behavior, problems that city officials, police and social service providers say are not caused by people using the shelter, but rather by “bad actors” who prey upon the vulnerable.

A longtime Holm Avenue resident in Nason’s Corner, Day Whitehead says a homeless shelter might be necessary, “but I think they need to put it in a more central location.”

Residents of Nason’s Corner are angry and demanding the city slow down and reveal how their neighborhood ended up being chosen – apparently out of the blue – and why the city rejected a number of other areas that had already been designated and rezoned as possible sites for the facility.

Some have questioned whether the city, which is seeing an influx of new condos and luxury apartments downtown, is bowing to development pressure, a suggestion city officials have dismissed. Bayside has some of the only undeveloped land on the peninsula. Nason’s Corner lies about 3 miles away on the western edge of the city.

“There are a lot of unanswered questions,” Whitehead said, while taking a break from mowing his front lawn, where a variety of colorful flowers were potted and planted around his home.

It’s a local decision, but it also will affect people throughout the state and the region. About one-third of the 200 to 300 people staying in Portland’s city-run shelters each night come from other Maine communities and another one-third come from other states or countries.

HOME TO 5% OF CITY’S POPULATION

The Nason’s Corner neighborhood, which straddles Brighton Avenue near the Westbrook city line, is home to a mix of big box stores, strip malls, hotels and the city’s only strip club. But it also includes several small residential streets lined with moderately sized single-family homes tightly packed on small lots.

A proposed 200-bed homeless service center would be built on a parcel of city-owned land at the Barron Center campus on Brighton Avenue, near the city’s border with Westbrook and miles from downtown Portland. Staff photo by Derek Davis

It also is home to about 5 percent of the city’s population of nearly 67,000. About 80 percent of the 3,580 residents are homeowners – the highest rate in the city – and one-third of the residents have children under the age of 18, according to 2015 U.S. Census data. Many of the renters live in Sagamore Village, a 200-unit low-income housing development owned by the Portland Housing Authority.

The campus of the Barron Center, a city-run nursing home with a separate dementia ward, sits on the western edge of the neighborhood, sandwiched between the Maine Turnpike and Holm Avenue, a residential street.

City officials surprised its residents in late June when they announced plans to build a new shelter and service center for the homeless on city-owned land within the Barron Center campus.

The plan has mobilized residents who fear an end to their quiet and safe neighborhood, leaving city officials and other advocates trying to assure them that the modern, self-contained facility planned for the Barron Center would not bring Bayside’s problems to Nason’s Corner.

It wouldn’t be the first time the neighborhood filled the role.

Until the first quarter of the 20th century, Barron Center’s campus had an almshouse and farm for the poor.

LONG-TERM EFFORT TO ESTABLISH NEW SHELTER

The effort to build a new shelter dates back at least to 2015, when the city appointed a task force to study its options.

But the need for a larger and more humane shelter has been recognized for much longer.

The new 200-bed shelter would replace the 29-year-old Oxford Street Shelter, a converted three-story apartment building and former auto shop where adults sleep on plastic mats spread across the floors.

Along with space for beds, the new facility would include room for meals, laundry and health care services, as well as conference rooms and a screened-in outdoor area. The Oxford Street Shelter has none of those things, which forces people to walk through the neighborhood and city and leaves them vulnerable to the drug dealers and others who are blamed for the crime and other problems in Bayside. The new self-contained facility would not only improve services, but also protect the neighborhood from the conflicts that have emerged near Oxford Street, advocates say.

Efforts to find a site picked up a year ago, when the City Council approved a rezoning proposal to allow shelters in about a dozen specific areas, including business and industrial zones on the outskirts of the city, that met a list of criteria designed to limit the impact on the neighborhood. The Barron Center was not identified as one of the possible destinations.

The council action at the time specifically ruled out residential zones as inappropriate. That’s adding another wrinkle to the proposal for the Barron Center land, which, despite being flanked by business zones on Brighton Avenue, is zoned as residential and would have to be rezoned for the shelter plan to move forward.

Michael Archer Jr. is concerned with the safety of his 6-year-old son, Michael Archer III, if the city goes through with a plan to build a homeless service center nearby. Staff photo by Derek Davis

“Why is it that the Health and Human Services Committee is considering a proposal from the city manager that violates the expanded zoning for emergency shelters approved by City Council,” Celebration Court resident Dick Niles asked the council committee last Tuesday. “What has changed outside of coveting the Barron Center that makes this emergency shelter design appropriate for a residential zone?”

OTHER SITES DISMISSED

City Manager Jon Jennings has said he traveled all over the city looking for a suitable location. City officials do not have a written analysis detailing the reasons why other specific sites were dismissed, although several city councilors asked staff last week to produce an analysis retroactively.

City Hall Communications Director Jessica Grondin said Jennings received a list of potential areas from planning staff that met the council’s criteria for having access to public transportation and not hiding the shelter in a remote area. He then visited them with a real estate broker.

Jennings was on vacation last week and could not be reached for an interview.

A city memo states that Jennings looked at land on Presumpscot Street in East Deering and Bishop Street near Deering Center, as well as land on County Way in Libbytown and behind the First Baptist Church at Washington Avenue and Canco Road at the edge of North Deering.

Nag ham Al Hariri, 10, speaks to a reporter while translating for her father at their apartment in Sagamore Village Thursday. The family, originally from Syria, has been in the U.S. for two years and has lived in three different apartments in Portland. Staff photo by Derek Davis

Oxford Street Shelter Director Rob Parritt said land along Presumpscot Street lacked adequate public transportation and would have hidden the shelter from the general public. Land next to the Cumberland County Jail on County Way was dismissed because of the optics, he said. “There’s already the stigma of the homeless being a criminal element,” Parritt said.

Neither Parritt nor Grondin could explain why land on Bishop Street, near Morrill’s Corner, was not suitable.

Parritt said the city had been in discussions with the leadership of the First Baptist Church, which was open to selling some land for the new shelter. However, that site had challenges, including access and wetland issues. And it would have been in the middle of a residential area, as opposed to on the edge of a residential area.

But in the end, it was the fact that the city already owned the Barron Center land that carried the day, because the city could have better control over who was visiting the shelter while keeping development costs down, officials said.

And, while some have criticized the location as being too far removed from the downtown area, advocates say the site is located on a busy public bus line and will be served by a new shuttle service.

FEELING BLINDSIDED

The fact that many residents were caught off-guard when the city announced its proposal for the Barron Center intensified the anger and fear in the neighborhood, according to Maya Lena, president of the Nason’s Corner Neighborhood Association.

A neighborhood meeting two weeks ago drew a crowd of over 250 people, many of whom booed and shouted at city officials as they tried to explain their rationale. Dozens more testified at City Hall the following week, saying the decision was poorly thought out because the city could not produce an impact statement or fully explain what other sites were considered.

“The people of Nason’s Corner have felt blindsided by this announcement because the Barron Center site was not a potential location for the new homeless services center,” Lena told the council’s Health and Human Services Committee last Tuesday. “Being included in the earlier discussions could have allayed some of those fears if neighbors were included in the decision-making process from the beginning.”

Day Whitehead of Holm Avenue mows his lawn on Thursday. Whitehead raised three children in his house, where he has lived for 34 years. Staff photo by Derek Davis

But Parritt and Councilor Belinda Ray, who leads the Health and Human Services Committee that is evaluating the city’s proposal, defended the city process. They said that it would not have been prudent to produce a list of potential locations, without first vetting them, because the city didn’t own the property it was looking at.

“I don’t think you want to put out every idea because it only makes sense to come forward with a site where this could actually occur,” Ray said. “This is the site that rose to the top of the list.”

WHY ONE LARGE SHELTER?

Some of the critics of the chosen site are advocating for several smaller shelters to be built around the city, including their own neighborhood, in part as a way to reduce the impact on any one area.

Mayor Ethan Strimling and City Councilor Brian Batson, who represents Nason’s Corner, are also pushing this idea. While Batson is opposed to the current proposal, Strimling has said he’s keeping an open mind.

But the city has looked at the scattered site model several times over the years and deemed it too expensive, Ray said.

“That issue has been pitched and rejected multiple times, including by the current council,” she said.

In 2015, a task force was established to examine the scattered site model versus a consolidated shelter. According to estimates from the nonprofit social services provider Preble Street, a consolidated shelter would cost about $2.7 million to operate, while having five scattered sites would cost about $4.6 million.

While that analysis excludes some costs, city officials say it’s clear the scattered model would not work in Portland.

“It would be very difficult and not a good thing for a city of our size to have that many shelters,” Parritt said.

LOOKING FORWARD

Ray and Parritt conceded that more outreach and education is needed for people to fully understand the city’s proposal and why it makes the most sense.

“The more I talk to folks in the neighborhood on an individual basis, the more substantive conversations we’re able to have,” Parritt said.

The Health and Human Services Committee could vote on the proposal in September. That would send it to the Planning Board for a recommendation to the full City Council, which would have the final say.

Parritt said he will continue to talk to neighbors and others, and the city plans to update its website with additional information about the proposal and the process leading up to this point. Ray said she’d like to have additional community forums to present the plan and the long-running effort to address homelessness.

“I think there is confusion out there,” Ray said. “If people haven’t been following this process for the last six years, it does feel sudden to them. And I think we need to do a better job of explaining what the process has been to this date.”

The question is whether any amount of information and outreach will make the proposal palatable to the residents of Nason’s Corner.

Whitehead, the Holm Avenue resident drenched in sweat, paused near his lawnmower to think about that one on a recent warm afternoon.

“For the neighborhood? No,” he said. A new shelter may be needed, he said, “but I think they need to put it in a more central location.”