I have lived on the Portland peninsula for 46 years. I have seen significant changes, both positive and of concern.

Congress Street has gone from empty storefronts to a vibrant mix of shops, arts organizations and galleries. Restaurants of all sorts and all prices offer dining options from one end of the peninsula to the other. There has been significant development downtown and on both the East and West ends. Many people have been attracted to the peninsula. The business community is healthy, growing and more diversified.

But affordable workforce housing is seriously lacking, as development has been skewed to very low income or high income. The physical form of development raises the issue of whether we are seeing Portland change before our eyes. Short-term rentals have expanded exponentially, affecting neighborhood feel and stability. Sober houses proliferate all over the city. Many of these concerns have been recognized and debated but not yet resolved.

But a social service trend just as dramatic receives far less attention: homelessness and what the city’s role should be in dealing with it.

Following a 1987 tent city protest encampment in Lincoln Park, then-City Manager Bob Ganley pledged that no one would go unsheltered in Portland. A network of private shelters and two new city shelters – one for single adults and the other for families – addressed that then-modest need.

Over the years, the private shelters closed and the Oxford Street Shelter for adults and Preble Street began serving ever-increasing numbers and people from outside Portland. It is now well accepted that only one-third of Oxford Street clients are from Portland. Because services are “low barrier,” Portland attracts homeless who are not accepted elsewhere. Many Maine communities, including Westbrook and South Portland, send their homeless to Portland but do not have or even allow homeless shelters.

By default and without robust community discussion, Portland for years thus assumed the role of Maine’s primary provider of homeless shelter and services – and accepted state funds to serve this role. When the LePage administration reduced those funds, Portland taxpayers stepped up to fill the void.

For well over a year, the Portland City Council has been dealing with replacing its municipal shelter, now housed in a totally unacceptable rental building. Many of the proposed sites have elicited a strong public reaction, most recently at a hearing last week on a proposed 150-bed shelter with on-site services.

But the council has not come to grips with these fundamental questions:

• Should Portland continue to shelter, without limit, homeless people from other parts of the state and from out of state? Who are “our homeless”?

• What are the direct (operating and capital) and extended costs (police, medical rescue, drug treatment and outreach, trash cleanup, etc.) of assuming such a broad responsibility?

• Should the city continue the current “low barrier” approach to sheltering whatever homeless cohort it assumes responsibility for? Or should the city instead, after providing a limited number of emergency shelter nights, require clients to fully engage in assessments and treatment in order to restore their lives rather than enable existing life patterns?

• What are the recognized impacts of emergency shelters in or adjacent to residential neighborhoods? Do short-term emergency shelters belong in residential neighborhoods at all?

A full community debate over these fundamental questions is long overdue. The City Council should not settle on a shelter size or location until it addresses these questions, engaging residents from all over the city, not just advocates for and service providers to the homeless.

Advocates are pushing for a larger shelter or two large shelters. Others are seeking “small” shelters scattered all over the city in residential neighborhoods.

I have let the council know my answers to the above questions. Will you join me? Let the council know your view on the city’s appropriate responsibility to the homeless. Our current mayor broadly defines “our homeless” and does not favor any limits. When mayoral or council candidates present themselves at your door, ask them to explain their position.

We should not go further down the path of “come one, come all” without clear support from the broad community.


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