A Portland City Council subcommittee is seeking public feedback as it prepares to recommend possible sites for a new homeless services center.

But each of the panel’s three prospective locations is already facing criticism for varying reasons. The size of the proposed 150-bed shelter is also drawing criticism, both from people who say it is too big and from those who say it is not big enough.

The City Council’s Health & Human Services and Public Safety Committee will hold a public hearing Tuesday about whether the city should move forward with planning for a new homeless services center at three possible sites: a lot known as Angelo’s Acre near the Casco Bay Bridge on Commercial Street, a piece of state-owned land near the Cumberland County Jail in Libbytown, or a parcel of industrial land on Riverside Street.

Committee Chairwomen Belinda Ray said she does not expect the committee to take any action after Tuesday’s hearing, but hopes the committee will be ready to make a recommendation to the full council in April.

Belinda Ray

“We have a really difficult choice to make and public input will be an important part of making that choice,” Ray said. “We have three viable sites and they all have challenges and benefits. We need to choose one that will be best for the community, the clients and the staff.”

Portland is looking to replace the Oxford Street Shelter, which can accommodate 154 single adults sleeping on thin mats placed on the floor. Demand at the Bayside shelter, which is a converted three-story apartment building and former auto garage, routinely exceeds capacity, so the city uses other space to accommodate the overflow, including setting up 75 mats at a resource center operated by the nonprofit Preble Street.

City officials are proposing to create a new 150-bed shelter with amenities currently lacking at its existing shelter, including a soup kitchen, health clinic and meeting space where clients can receive counseling on housing, treatment and other issues.

City staff recommended building a new shelter at the city-run Barron Center on Brighton Avenue last summer, but dropped that plan amid neighborhood backlash. The committee began the search anew and has now narrowed the list to three potential sites.

Two of the sites –Angelo’s Acre and 654 Riverside St. – are already owned by the city. The County Way site is currently owned by the state, but the city is looking to acquire that parcel and others through a land swap. In addition to considering County Way for a new shelter, city officials are also looking to build a new public safety building for police and fire department administrators on the site.

The County Way site also is next to the Cumberland County Jail and the headquarters of the Cumberland County Sheriff’s Office.

While the public hearing will likely generate feedback from neighbors of the sites and other residents, the committee already has received feedback from social service providers and from Homeless Voices for Justice, an advocacy group of people who have experienced homelessness that receives funding from the nonprofit Preble Street.

Several providers expressed concern about the Riverside location, saying its distance from downtown could create a barrier to accessing services. One local agency, Spurwink, warned that it would be more difficult to provide medically assisted addiction treatment, such as Suboxone, if the shelter were located at the edge of the city. Other social service agencies said they could deliver services at any of the locations.

Amistad, which provides a safe haven and peer support to people with mental illness, and Sexual Assault Response Services of Southern Maine identified County Way as the best option. Shalom House, which also serves those with mental illness, preferred Angelo’s Acre.

Opportunity Alliance worried about the optics of locating a shelter near the jail on County Way, while also worrying about the amount of traffic at Angelo’s Acre on Commercial Street. City planners said zoning rules would require a shelter at Angelo’s Acre to be built up to the sidewalk on western Commercial Street.

Homeless Voices for Justice was also concerned about locating a shelter next to a jail, saying it could create a barrier for people accessing services. The group said a survey of people experiencing homelessness produced mixed opinions about the County Way site, with some worried about the stigma of being next to the jail and others saying it would be a safer environment. Mixed views were also expressed about Angelo’s Acre, which is closer to services but located near the edge of the harbor and a busy street.

TOO BIG OR TOO SMALL?

“While the (County Way) location is closer to many current services than Riverside is, we fear that placing a shelter near the jail will increase the stigma, discrimination, violence and criminalization that people experiencing homelessness already face,” they said. “We believe the close proximity to the County Jail may increase these barriers rather than strive to resolve them. We strongly encourage the Health and Human Services Subcommittee to discuss this aspect of the location.”

Some opponents have described the city’s proposal as a “mega-shelter” that is too large to place in any neighborhood. However, Homeless Voices for Justice expressed concern that the 150-bed shelter would not be large enough to accommodate the existing demand given that the existing 154-bed shelter routinely overflows. The group said building a shelter without enough capacity could lead the city to change its policies on whom it serves as a way to reduce that demand.

“To us, it is crucial that the city keeps to its long-standing commitment to provide emergency shelter services to anyone who needs it and that the policies governing the new Homeless Service Center are the least restrictive they can possibly be, to ensure that the city’s goals for rapidly connecting people to resources and housing can be met,” the group said.

 


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