The consideration of County Way, abutting the Cumberland County Jail, as a potential site of a new “mega-shelter” shows that the city of Portland continues to follow a haphazard path as it searches for a site for a project that is too large to conform within most Portland neighborhoods.

Just a few months ago, when the city was defending a potential site at Nason’s Corner as the “best” location for the shelter, city staff released a document called the “Homeless Service Center Location Assessment Matrix.” Of the seven potential sites listed on this matrix, the County Way site was ranked next to last.

Despite that, on Feb. 26 the City Council’s Health and Human Services Committee narrowed the list of potential mega-shelter sites to three properties, including County Way.

This is tragically shortsighted. The city is failing to consider the impact the shelter would have on the already-stressed neighborhoods of Libbytown and St. John Valley. The two areas, which surround the proposed site, already contribute more toward supporting the homeless and those in need than any area of Portland except for Bayside.

Within a few minutes’ walk of the proposed 150-bed shelter site, there are already a 30-bed housing-first project, a low-income housing project, a facility that provides housing for the mentally ill, a women-only facility that contains 25 housing-first units alongside 15 “safe haven” beds and 25 emergency housing beds, at least one staffed group home for people with various disabilities and several “sober” or “transitional” houses. When you include the ever-expanding Maine Medical Center campus, the sprawling county jail facility and Mercy Hospital’s Fore River campus, the Libbytown and St. John Valley neighborhoods are fast becoming less neighborhood and more institutional service district. If one accepts the concept that a neighborhood can absorb only so much before it is broken, it must be plain to see that Libbytown and St. John Valley are closer to the breaking point than most other neighborhoods.

It would be a sad monument to the great failures of Portland urban planning if, a few hundred yards from where we once tore down Union Station to replace it with a strip mall, we decided to saddle an already-struggling neighborhood with a massive homeless shelter. It would be a disturbing commentary on how Portland views the homeless if, in the entire city of Portland, the only acceptable shelter location were sandwiched between a brewery and the institution where we house criminals. Locating a 150-bed shelter at the doorstep of the jail blurs the line between a shelter stay and incarceration and puts forth the image of homelessness as criminal.

In the City of Portland Comprehensive Plan, adopted June 2017, the Congress and St. John streets intersection was identified as a “Priority Node,” with a focus on comprehensive revisioning and transformation of the neighborhood. We don’t believe that the transformation of this area was envisioned as an institutional service or medical district, but as a vibrant, mixed-use neighborhood with a diversity of development.

If done properly, development in the neighborhoods around County Way would ease the lack of affordable housing and rejuvenate an area that has, for decades, borne the brunt of poor planning decisions by the city.

The best solution to address the community’s need for emergency shelter beds, which is supported by the Libbytown Neighborhood Association and St. John Valley Neighborhood Association Board, would be to build several smaller, scattered shelters around the city. Thus, no one neighborhood would have to bear all the externalities of a single large shelter. In the event the city is unable or unwilling to move away from the mega-shelter idea, it should at least remove County Way from its list of possible sites to prevent the disproportionate impact the shelter would have on an already vulnerable neighborhood.

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