A proposal to limit emergency shelter space in Portland is getting a cool reception from the city’s mayor and advocates for the homeless.

City Manager Jon Jennings’ 2019-20 budget proposal, unveiled Monday, would cap at 229 the number of beds provided to homeless adults in Maine’s largest city. For more than three decades, the city’s policy has been to use its primary shelter on Oxford Street for the homeless and then open up as many as three overflow sites to make sure everyone who asks is given a place to sleep.

“How much more can the city do?” Jennings said Friday while providing a preview of the budget proposal.

But Mayor Ethan Strimling pushed back against the idea in an interview Monday. “I don’t like a policy to turn people away at the door. It would just lead to people sleeping in the street,” he said.

And Mark Swann, executive director of Preble Street, a nonprofit agency that serves and advocates for the homeless community, said elected city officials have consistently pledged to provide shelter to all who need it and should not abandon that policy now.

Jim Devine, an advocate for the homeless who has experienced homelessness first hand, broke into tears when he addressed the City Council Monday night during the public comment period.

Devine said he was really disturbed to read a Portland Press Herald article Monday about the proposed cap on homeless beds, pointing out that it violates a long-standing commitment by the city to provide shelter to people in need. He urged city leaders to reconsider. “I hope you give this some serious thought,” said Devine, who is active with a group called Homeless Voices for Justice.

The city’s Oxford Street shelter can accommodate 154 single adults, but that capacity is rarely enough. Overflow space for 75 more is available at the Preble Street Resource Center and the city has at times opened up additional overflow if needed.

Under Jennings’ plan, only the Oxford Street and Preble Street sites would be available. If both fill up, the city would turn away people who request space.

Shelter space for families is separate and is not expected to be affected by Jennings’ proposal. Preble Street operates a teen shelter which also would not be affected.

PUTTING IT ON THE TABLE

Jennings said the reduction in homeless services is part of a $206.6 million municipal budget calling for a 2.9 percent increase in the property tax rate. That translates to a $79 property tax increase for a home with an assessed value of $240,000.

Jennings said he’s aiming to keep taxes down to make living in Portland affordable. The city’s homeless shelter serves individuals from communities around the state, and Jennings has said it’s time for the city to discuss whether Portland taxpayers can afford to continue providing the service without limits. The city has tried but failed to collect funds from surrounding towns.

“I think it’s really important for the city to have this conversation,” Jennings said. “It’s ultimately the City Council that will decide. I think, in the context of this budget, it’s something that should be put on the table.”

Strimling said restricting beds for the homeless is not the answer.

“We are a city that welcomes people and takes care of our own, so I would be very concerned about what limitations we would have” under Jennings’ budget plan, Strimling said.

The city’s policy for more than 30 years has been to not turn away anyone eligible to sleep in the shelter. That approach was adopted in 1987 after protesters set up tents around Portland City Hall and in nearby Lincoln Park over a lack of emergency shelter space. The city manager at the time, Bob Ganley, eventually agreed to set up a shelter system to accommodate the homeless; a policy to provide as much space as needed has been followed ever since.

A LARGER HOUSING PROBLEM

Strimling said the space crunch for the homeless is part of a larger housing problem in the city. He proposes floating a bond to put more money into the city’s affordable housing fund and said building that fund up to $10 million would allow the city to construct about 1,000 units of affordable housing. But even that would not be enough to eliminate a long waiting list for affordable housing, he said.

“That’s just the minimum (needed) if we are going to survive as a city,” Strimling said. “We’ve got to create more affordable housing. Turning people away is not the answer.”

Swann said those who don’t like the system of shelters and want to cut city funding have mischaracterized Portland’s commitment as “just a comment made by Ganley over 30 years ago.”

“This has been city policy for over 30 years,” said Swann, whose organization donates space to the city to provide an overflow shelter. “It was not a policy simply uttered one time by a city manager more than 30 years ago. That commitment has been restated year after year after year.”

Swann said Preble Street holds regular forums for City Council candidates and they are always asked about the city’s policy on the homeless. He can’t remember any of them advocating that Portland pull back from providing beds for the homeless.

“The idea of limiting beds or capping capacity – some of it stems from financial concerns, for sure, but some of it also comes from this notion that if we stop serving people, they don’t exist any more,” he said. But that approach doesn’t solve the problem, he said.

Shelters are over capacity despite low unemployment and an economy that is humming along, a reality that belies the idea that the problem will go away, Swann said. People are homeless for a variety of reasons, he said, and a lack of a job is just one – many are homeless because of mental illness or substance abuse and they need a safe place to sleep at night.

“We’re gearing up for harder times and the shelters are full now,” he said. “Just shutting the doors of life-saving shelters is not the answer.”

COMMUNITY VALUES

Councilor Spencer Thibodeau, who is running for mayor, said he favors a “low-barrier” shelter system that would accommodate most of those seeking a place to stay for a night. But he also said he agrees with Jennings that the council needs to discuss its homeless policy, especially in the middle of the city’s search for a site to build a new, modern shelter with 150 beds.

“It’s a debate that we do need to have,” Thibodeau said. “The budget has to reflect our values as a community.”

Thibodeau said the discussion should involve neighboring communities, many of which don’t have shelters, which means that some of the homeless are being pushed into Portland. The discussion also needs to include state officials, he said, to see if more state aid can be steered to the city.

“We can’t shy away from the tough issues any more,” he said. “Maintaining the status quo is difficult from a budget standpoint.”

A message left for Belinda Ray, the other councilor who is running for mayor, was not returned Monday.

Jennings officially presented his budget proposal to the City Council on Monday. The council’s Finance Committee is scheduled to begin its detailed review Tuesday. A call to Nick Mavodones, the chairman of that committee, was not returned Monday.

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