Libbytown residents turned out in force Tuesday night to oppose a proposal to build a new homeless shelter near the Cumberland County Jail.

Residents urged the council’s Health & Human Services and Public Safety Committee to create a task force and consider building several smaller shelters throughout the city, even though service providers have warned that such a model would be difficult to staff.

Damon Yakovleff, of the Libbytown Neighborhood Association, said a task force made up of people across the city would be a good way to educate residents about the need for a new shelter and how a new facility will be different from the Oxford Street Shelter, which has been in Bayside for the last 30 years.

Such a process may lead the city to reconsider its plan to build a single 150-bed shelter, Yakovleff said.

“If there is no good site, then really we won’t be able to move forward with the preferred model and we will have to rethink the scattered site model,” he said.

Several Bayside residents, however, urged the council to move forward with a site, pointing to County Way as the most viable.

The site is now owned by the state, but the city is trying to acquire it through a land swap. In recent weeks, City Manager Jon Jennings has proposed building a new public safety building on that site as well.

Parris Street resident Sean Kerwin said the city has had two task forces to study homelessness in the last decade and the current council has already endorsed the idea of a centralized 150-bed shelter.

Although councilors did not support more than one city-run site, it is partnering with Avesta Housing, Opportunity Alliance and Preble Street on speciality shelters for seniors, mentally ill and women, respectively.

“At some point we need to stop arguing points that have already been decided,” Kerwin said. “The fact is the city has been working on this for years. We are in crisis and we have got to move forward.”

The city is looking to replace the Oxford Street Shelter, where up to 154 adults sleep on thin mats placed on the floor. The shelter lacks a soup kitchen and meeting space, so clients must access the Preble Street soup kitchen two blocks away for meals and in some cases services.

Demand routinely exceeds capacity, so up to 75 mats are set up at Preble Street for overflow. And in the past, the general assistance office has been used when the overflow is full.

The new shelter would have 150 beds, as well as a soup kitchen, medical clinic and other space for social service providers to meet privately with clients. Officials would also like to create a screened in outdoor area for clients.

City officials proposed building that shelter at the Barron Center on Brighton Avenue, but the proposal was dropped due to neighborhood opposition. Now Avesta Housing is looking to build a facility to serve homeless seniors there.

Libbytown residents urged the city to drop the County Way site because of opposition. In addition to concerns about its impact on the neighborhood, they noted that the site has environmental concerns that could make it an expensive place to build a shelter and some argued that a shelter would violate the city’s comprehensive plan.

“It will destroy the accomplishments of those who have struggled to improve this neighborhood for over a decade,” Valley Street resident Sarah Marin said.

Several advocates from Homeless Voices for Justice, an advocacy program overseen by the nonprofit Preble Street, spoke during the hearing. They said that Angelo’s Acre on Commercial Street near the Casco Bay Bridge was the best option, since it was located closest to social services.

Shalom House, which serves people with mental illness, also selected Angelo’s Acre as its preferred site of the three options.

No one spoke in favor of the third site, 654 Riverside St., because it was too far from downtown and its location would be a barrier to accessing services.

HVJ Advocate Caroline Silvius was among those urging the committee to reconsider some sites that were previously eliminated, including the former West School on Douglass Street, which she called “ideal.”

While opponents have described the new homeless services center as “mega shelter,” Heather Zimmerman, Preble Street’s advocacy director, noted that the proposed shelter would have fewer beds than the current shelter, which routinely overflows.

Zimmerman noted that on Monday night, 261 people sought emergency shelter at Oxford Street. She said that using the term mega-shelter was designed to “scare neighborhoods of what we already have in our city.”

Several speakers wondered about whether the shelter would have enough capacity to accommodate demand. That led some to argue for creating more shelters, while others were concerned that the city may change its policy on who it serves.

Right now, the city serves anyone in need, regardless of where they are from. But some city councilors have been pushing for a discussion about Portland’s policy, though nothing has been scheduled.

City Councilor Belinda Ray, who leads the Health & Human Services and Public Safety Committee, said the group could vote on a recommendation to the full council at its first meeting in April, which has not yet been scheduled.

Randy Billings can be contacted at 791-6346 or at:

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