Matthew Coffey wants to bring his experience of being homeless for most of his adult life to the Portland City Council and be a voice for the “average Joe.”

To do that, the 39-year-old, self-employed landscaper will have to unseat incumbent Belinda Ray, who is finishing her first term representing the eastern half of the peninsula and Casco Bay islands. Ray has led efforts to preserve views at Fort Sumner Park and worked to address concerns about demolitions and new boxy condos that are out of scale with the neighborhood. She also helped craft the city’s ban on synthetic pesticides.

This is Coffey’s third run for City Council, having run unsuccessfully for at-large seats in 2015 and 2016. One of the issues motivating him to run is the city’s desire to relocate its homeless shelter out of Bayside, where it has been for the last three decades.

Ray, a 48-year-old freelance writer and accounts and administration manager for a local building company, has been leading those efforts as head of the council’s Health and Human Services and Public Safety Committee, which has been looking at a staff proposal to build a 200-bed facility at the city-owned Barron Center.

Amid pubic backlash, the committee directed staff to look at other properties for a similar shelter or up to three smaller shelters. Ray said the issue has been studied several times in the past, but no action has been taken. She wants to change that.

The Oxford Street Shelter is a converted three-story apartment building and auto body shop, where 154 people sleep on thin mats placed close together on the floor. Demand routinely exceeds capacity, so the city opens up one or more overflow shelters. And the city shelter lacks a soup kitchen and spaces to meet with people struggling with a myriad of issues, ranging from a lack of housing to substance use and mental health problems.


“It is imperative we get a new facility,” Ray said. “The (current) conditions are not dignified and the services are not adequate.”

Coffey, however, doesn’t think there is anything wrong with the existing shelter in Bayside. As a younger man, Coffey said he chose to be homeless while traveling the country. Once in Maine, Coffey said he lived in a hotel in York County while working as a landscaper. When he asked for housing assistance, he was sent to Portland because they didn’t consider him a resident. He’s been here for the last eight years, spending most of that time camping out in the woods.

“Having been in shelters around the country, this really isn’t the worst situation to be in here in Portland, Maine,” Coffey said. If the city is going to make an investment in emergency shelter, Coffey said it should build smaller shelters throughout the city, geared toward specific populations.

Ray continues to think the staff proposal for a centralized shelter at the Barron Center is a good one. She does not think having the city operate several smaller shelters will be effective or affordable, based on her conversations with social service providers. The fact that Preble Street has had to scale back hours at its day shelter because of financial issues, and other nonprofit shelters have closed down over the years, only shows that a scatter-site model is doomed to fail, she said.

“I can’t see providing inadequate services in three sites when we could provide excellent services at one site,” Ray said.

During a second term, Ray said she’d continue working on a paid sick leave ordinance proposed by Mayor Ethan Strimling, as well as creating an ordinance to address noise throughout the city. She’d also like the city to look at ways to use satellite parking lots and to improve bus service to reduce traffic and congestion downtown.


Ray is also working on a proposal to tighten up the city’s short-term rental ordinance to reduce the impact on the long-term housing market.

In addition to the shelter, Coffey said that, as a libertarian, he doesn’t support a lot of government intervention. He would like the business community to give people who, like him, use Preble Street as their home mailing address an opportunity to work, but he would not support a requirement.

Although social service providers say that many of the chronically homeless are not employment-ready because of substance use, mental illness or disabilities, Coffey thinks the city should be doing more to help people who are on public assistance become self-sufficient.

“I see a lot of fish given out and not too many fishing poles,” said Coffey, who recently got housed. “It’s great to help people, but there is a point where people have to help themselves.”

Ray supports allowing noncitizens to vote in local elections, but Coffey opposes it, arguing that voting is a right and privilege of citizenship.

Both support a safe consumption site, where people addicted to heroin and other hard drugs can safely get high under supervision of medical staff. Such a model is seen not only as a way to keep people alive but also to get them into treatment.

So far, Ray has raised over $4,800 toward her re-election. Coffey is not required to file his campaign finance report until 11 days before the election.

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