City officials are beginning to discuss taking over the Preble Street Resource Center, which has been providing basic necessities and services for the homeless and low-income families at 5 Portland St. for the last 16 years.

Preble Street Executive Director Mark Swann did not respond to requests for an interview. But a spokesperson for the nonprofit social service agency issued a statement on his behalf.

“Last month, the City Manager and I briefly discussed that at some point the City itself might wish to operate day shelter services at the Resource Center until it opens a new homeless services center,” Swann said. “In that scenario, Preble Street would continue to operate the soup kitchen. We are open to that, but have had no subsequent discussions.”

City Manager Jon Jennings said that Swann told him that Preble Street could wind down operations at the resource center as soon as this fall.

Jon Jennings

Jennings said the city is considering leasing the space as a way to preserve overnight overflow space for the city-run Oxford Street Shelter. The city shelter at 203 Oxford St. routinely exceeds its 154-person capacity, so an additional 75 mats are set up on the floor of the resource center.

If the city signs a lease with Preble Street, Jennings said he would move day services currently being provided at the Oxford Street Shelter. He thinks the city could save money by providing those day services at a single-story building, rather than the three-story overnight shelter.

“It would be for the city to maintain an overflow facility during the night until such time we can get to a permanent facility,” Jennings said. 

The resource center provides a wide array of services, including supplying the homeless and low-income residents with daily necessities such as caseworkers, clothing, toiletries, showers, phones and laundry services. It’s unclear how clients would be impacted by the transition. Preble Street spokesman Dan D’Ippolito said the nonprofit did not have any additional information to share beyond its statement.

The news comes as the city and social service nonprofits are rethinking how social services are provided in Maine’s largest city.

The City Council is currently looking for a location for a new, 150-bed homeless services center. Unlike the current facility, the new homeless services center would include an on-site medical clinic, soup kitchen and conference rooms for counseling. Once a site is selected, the new facility would need to be designed, approved and constructed, which could take years.

Preble Street has announced that it is hoping to open a 30- to 40-bed healing center for women at 55 Portland St.

Stepping away from the resource center would be a significant change for the nonprofit, which was founded in the 1970s by a social work professor.

When the resource center first opened in 1975 at 68 High St., Preble Street founder Joe Kriesler called it a “little experiment.” It was Portland’s introduction to low-barrier services – a place where anyone in need of assistance could come. The model is designed to build trust and relationships with people who are living on the streets and in shelters, so when they’re ready for help with either housing, substance use or mental health issues, it can be provided.

The resource center moved to Preble Chapel at Cumberland Avenue and Preble Street in 1981. The center moved to its current location at 5 Portland St. in 2002.

In 2016, Preble Street spent $1.4 million to operate the resource center, according to its most recent tax returns. Last fall, Preble Street scaled back hours at the resource center, citing financial issues. The nonprofit said the reduced hours would save an estimated $100,000.

After a tent city popped up at City Hall in the 1980s, former City Manager Robert Ganley made a commitment to shelter anyone in need. Since then, the city has been running a low-barrier overnight homeless shelter, most recently on Oxford Street, which council candidates have routinely said they supported at forums sponsored by Homeless Voices for Justice, an advocacy program overseen by Preble Street.

Now, the city is wondering whether it can maintain the status quo.

Last week, Jennings presented a budget to the City Council that would effectively cap the number of homeless adults it would serve at the shelter. The City Council will debate that proposal in the coming weeks.

Swann was sharply critical of Jennings’ proposal, saying that councilors have consistently restated Ganley’s commitment. While acknowledging the city’s financial concerns, Swann told the Press Herald last week that no longer serving the homeless will not make them disappear.

“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.”

Jennings, however, took umbrage to that criticism.

“I do find it the height of hypocrisy for them to be critical of my recommendation to have a conversation about a policy developed 30 years ago, when just last year they began to roll back services and back away from their commitment for the homeless,” Jennings said.

Sarah Michniewicz, president of the Bayside Neighborhood Association, said Swann updated the neighborhood at a recent meeting, saying that Preble Street could not afford to continue operating the resource center and develop a new healing center for women. She said some residents are concerned about a “messy transition” period.

“We’re hoping the city will take the lead in coordinating Health and Human Services and the police with all of the other service providers in order to make sure the gaps that are left by the resource center closing will be filled to make sure people are safe and people know where to find the services they need so people don’t have a reason to wander around looking for something,” she said. 

City Councilor Belinda Ray, who represents the district and leads the council committee exploring sites for a new homeless services center, said she understands that some may be concerned about change, especially if it happens this fall. But she said the city is just beginning to explore this possibility and no decisions have been made.

“There’s always concerns with the shifts and changes in the social services environment that the reduction of one service could cause strain on another service,” she said. “But I think we need to find out what the plan is and then work from there. We need to ensure the safety of people in the community, people seeking services and the staff that help them.”