Portland officials have pointed to a modern homeless shelter in Montana as a “good example” of what they hope to build here.

And residents of the Nason’s Corner neighborhood are pointing to the same facility as an example of exactly what worries them.

Portland officials say a shelter in Missoula shows how a new, 200-bed emergency shelter for adults off Brighton Avenue could be designed to blend into the neighborhood.

However, residents in Missoula began complaining this summer to their own mayor and council that the shelter has led to a decline in the quality of life and safety of their neighborhood. And some Portlanders now say the Poverello Center – known locally as the Pov – is a cautionary tale against building a large shelter near a residential neighborhood.

“I’m afraid of what will happen if this does not work,” Holm Avenue resident Sherilyn Cadman told the City Council last Wednesday. “Passing this proposal may condemn Nason’s Corner to the same fate as Missoula’s West Side and we will be standing at this same podium telling you the same stories that Missoula’s residents have told their council.”

But Assistant City Manager Michael Sauschuck said Thursday that residents are focusing too much on that one comparison. He said the city isn’t looking to replicate any single shelter model, particularly the model that currently exists in Bayside, where having services such as a soup kitchen, health clinic and mental health support spread out has led to many problems.

Instead, Sauschuck said the city is pulling best practices from several shelters – in Massachusetts, Bangor and Missoula, among others – to incorporate into its new shelter. That includes having many of those services offered on site.

“The unfortunate reality is that some folks are focused like a laser on the Poverello Center, but that’s not the model we’re proposing,” he said. “We’re trying again to have a model that makes sense for us in Portland – not Missoula and not Boston.”

The latest salvo is part of a coordinated opposition campaign being waged by the neighborhood. Hundreds of residents turned out for a forum on the shelter proposal hosted by the city Saturday at the University of Southern Maine.

The city is looking to replace the 31-year-old Oxford Street Shelter in Bayside, which is housed in an old apartment building and auto garage. Officials have proposed building a new facility at the city-owned Barron Center campus that would accommodate 200 people in beds, as opposed to the 154 people sleeping on thin mats on the floor on Oxford Street, and adding in-house services.

Over the summer, Nason’s Corner residents launched a website, www.portlandshelters.org, detailing why they think their neighborhood is the wrong place for a “mega-shelter” and why building one large shelter, as opposed to several smaller shelters, as other U.S. communities have done, is doomed to fail. And they are conducting a door-to-door canvassing effort, collecting signatures on a nonbinding petition in opposition to the proposal.

Residents have taken advantage of open comment sessions at two City Council meetings, speaking for over an hour at a time, with each speaker delving into a different area of opposition. They worry about an increase in crime, a decline in property values and a deterioration of public safety, especially among schoolchildren, the elderly and low-income residents.

They are also highlighting the fact that the Barron Center is zoned as residential – a zoning category that was deemed inappropriate for shelters by city planners last year when they opened up certain business and industrial zones for shelters, which have historically only been allowed on the peninsula.

The most recent display was last Wednesday night, when the group claimed to have gathered over 1,100 signatures from residents in Nason’s Corner and Rosemont in opposition to the proposal. Several residents questioned whether city staff had fully vetted Missoula’s Pov before citing it as a “good example” in an email to residents.

SAME-NIGHT CONCERNS

Although Missoula is over 2,400 miles away from Portland, residents in each city approached their respective councils on the same night in August.

On Aug. 13, Missoula residents expressed concerns about the degradation of their neighborhoods, with people sleeping on their lawns and charging their phones at their doorsteps. They described hostile and threatening exchanges when asking these folks to move along – and finding discarded needles in front yards, playgrounds and parks.

And they laid the blame on the Pov, which has about 150 beds but can accommodate more in the winter. The shelter, which is operated by a nonprofit, moved from a former boardinghouse near Missoula City Hall to a new, $5 million facility in 2015. As in other parts of the country, they have experienced an increase in the number of homeless people in their city, and much of the problematic behavior is being attributed to substance use.

“I’m wondering what happened to the assurances we had that this would not happen,” Missoula resident Candace Loskutoff said in August.

That same night in Portland, residents were worried that a similar fate awaits their neighborhood. They repeated those concerns at Wednesday’s council meeting.

“If the Pov is a good example about what’s being recommended for Portland and is half the size, then we know what to expect,” Cadman said last week.

But there are some important differences between the Pov and Portland’s proposed shelter.

For example, Portland’s shelter would be a low-barrier facility that allows people under the influence of alcohol and drugs to stay there, as long as they don’t use on-site and are not a threat to others. But the Pov has a sobriety requirement for people staying at the shelter. Those who are actively using must find other accommodations, so many people camp in wooded areas and in some cases on people’s lawns.

Amy Allison Thompson, executive director of the Pov, said the city is currently looking at creating a low-barrier shelter that could accommodate people who are actively using, describing the lack of such a facility as a gap in the city’s safety net.

The Montana shelter.

“It seems some of those folks tend to be the ones causing the (problematic behavior) in the neighborhood,” Thompson said. “I do think if we were able to offer that here it would reduce those issues. People would not have to sleep on people’s lawns if they had a place to stay.”

Eran Fowler Pehan, Missoula’s community development director and the Pov’s former executive director, said that such behavior still exists downtown, even though the Pov moved. But those issues are typically caused by a relatively small number of people who are not using the shelter services.

“There was a conflation between those two populations,” Pehan said. “We haven’t really seen the elimination of those types of behaviors now that the shelter has been moved.”

Some residents in Portland’s Bayside neighborhood believe they will still have problems even if the shelter is moved, since other social services, such as Preble Street’s Resource Center and soup kitchen, would likely remain in the area. And there will always be people who prefer to remain downtown.

“Not only are the attitudes (and) expectations for behavior deeply entrenched, but Oxford Street is only one of the many social services in Bayside and the peninsula,” said Sarah Michniewicz, president of the Bayside Neighborhood Association. “The people who choose to cause chaos, or who come to prey on vulnerable people or find cover for illicit activities, will likely continue to do so here where it has long been perceived as acceptable and resources are available. As things improve, bad behaviors will be more obvious and less tolerated, but that may take a couple of years.”

The Pov recently began capping the number of guests at 150 in the warmer months and 200 in the winter, whereas Portland has a policy of not turning anyone away and regularly uses overflow space to accommodate additional demand.

Sauschuck, Portland’s former police chief, said the city’s shelter, unlike the Pov, will have a community policing station on site, making it easier to respond to issues that may emerge. And the city’s shelter would allow residents to stay on site 24 hours a day, whereas the Pov recently began closing down its dorms in between meals, so it could focus on one-on-one meetings with clients.

And the city will continue its efforts to quickly get people housed, he said.

“We have people who are suffering and we want to provide as many services as possible, in a wrap-around style,” Sauschuck said.

There is a neighborhood council that meets every other month in Missoula to address any neighborhood concerns. And the Pov has a homeless outreach team that residents can call when they are having issues with someone. Sauschuck said Portland would be looking to do the same.

COMMUNICATION KEY

Officials in Missoula said that maintaining an open line of communication with the neighborhood is key.

Missoula Mayor John Engen said that finding a new site for the Pov was also a contentious process. At the end, not everyone supported the plan, even though the final site selection was made by a community stakeholder group that was given a list of options that could accommodate the facility and were affordable for the nonprofit organization.

Neither Engen nor Thompson expressed any regrets about the type of facility they built or the location, though the mayor said that in hindsight it could have been a bit larger. He also lamented the lack of adequate community resources to deal with addiction and to manage the caseload of clients.

“In the end, despite all outreach efforts, all reasonable promises, the nature of this business is there will be problems and there will be people who don’t want that facility near them for all sorts of reasons that are legitimate to them, so folks are going to be unhappy,” Engen said. “With high-quality staff police and procedures and really good communication, all of that can be mitigated, but it’s never going to be perfect.”

He added: “If we have had a failure of late – and I’ll take the blame on this – it’s been communication with that neighborhood to make sure we’re living up to our end of the bargain.”