Portland officials are no longer considering building a 150-bed homeless services center near the Cumberland County Jail.

The 6-acre site on County Way initially appeared to meet many of the criteria laid out by the City Council, such as being near other services with access to public transportation. But a City Council committee voted Tuesday to eliminate the County Way land from consideration, in part because of concerns about pedestrian safety.

The Health and Human Services and Public Safety Committee voted to recommend two other city-owned sites for the City Council to choose from: property at 654 Riverside St., on the western edge of the city, and a lot known as Angelo’s Acre on Commercial Street, near the city’s waterfront.

Councilor Belinda Ray, who chairs the committee, said the council could hold a public hearing and vote on a preferred site at its meeting May 20. But that date could change, she said, because the council is scheduled to vote on the budget that night.

“It will be up to the full council to determine which one of them is the best,” Ray said Wednesday. “This has been a really good conversation. The council recognizes the urgency of this situation and I believe the council has the courage and wisdom to make a good decision.”

Jane Drew, an advocate for Homeless Voices for Justice, an advocacy program overseen by the nonprofit social service agency Preble Street, said the group would continue to advocate for councilors to hold a forum with the homeless community.

“Everyone deserves to be heard,” Drew said in a written statement. “Hear our voices.”

The city’s Oxford Street Shelter can accommodate 154 single adults, but that capacity is rarely enough to meet demand. Press Herald photo by Shawn Patrick Ouellette

Portland officials have been looking for a way to improve its emergency shelter for years.

For more than three decades, the Oxford Street Shelter has been in the Bayside neighborhood near Portland’s downtown. Officials say the current building, a former three-story apartment building and auto garage, is ill-suited for an emergency shelter. The facility does not have a soup kitchen and demand for bed space routinely exceeds the 154-person capacity. The shelter regularly overflows, so an additional 75 mats are set up at Preble Street’s day shelter at 5 Portland St. and the city also is periodically forced to use office space to shelter people, although the city manager has proposed ending that practice.

In 2016, councilors toured several shelters in Massachusetts as a first step in planning for a new shelter. The following year, councilors changed standards for  industrial and business zones to allow for shelters.

Last year, City Manager Jon Jennings proposed building a 200-bed homeless services center with onsite soup kitchen, medical clinic and counseling rooms at the city-owned Barron Center on Brighton Avenue. That plan was withdrawn amid fierce neighborhood opposition, so the committee restarted its search.

The city was able to reduce the projected bed count at the new shelter to 150 by working with several nonprofits to create specialized facilities for victims of domestic violence, seniors and people with mental illness.

The three preferred locations discussed Tuesday were chosen from a review of city-owned and other properties across Portland. The committee’s decision to present the final two options comes three weeks after lengthy public hearing on all three sites.

More than a dozen residents in Libbytown and St. John Valley spoke against the County Way site. Some urged the council to have a better public process for selecting a site and consider building several smaller shelters, rather than one larger one.

Some residents are sticking to that position, even though County Way is no longer being considered.

“While I am glad County Way is off the list of potential sites, I do not believe there is any location suitable for the large scale 150-bed shelter,” Libbytown resident Damon Yakovleff said Wednesday. “Serious siting challenges face any location. To better serve people struggling with homelessness, I urge the city to pursue a scattered-sites model and adopt a task force to aid in finding suitable sites.”

City officials have been searching for ways to improve Portland’s emergency homeless shelter for years. Portland Press Herald file photo

Ray said she originally thought County Way would be the best site. But after hearing public input, she re-evaluated each site and now believes Riverside Street is the best location. She worried that locating a shelter on County Way would concentrate too many social services in the area, which she believes is a problem in Bayside.

Committee members on Tuesday also noted that the County Way site near the jail is located near busy city streets, as well as an active rail line and an interstate interchange.

The Riverside Street site is owned by the city and is the furthest from the downtown, in a mostly industrial area near the Presumpscot River and the Westbrook city line. But Rob Parritt, the former director of the city’s Oxford Street Shelter and a consultant on the shelter project, said the city is planning to offer a shuttle service to complement public bus service.

“I was all about putting folks out on Brighton Avenue, because I thought that would work,” Parritt said. “I don’t see a discernible difference with Riverside, but that’s just my interpretation.”

Although Ray wanted to recommend one site to the council, Councilors Brian Batson and Pious Ali, who serve on the committee, wanted to give the full council two options to debate.

Batson, who also had environmental health concerns about the County Way site, noted that some service providers and homeless advocates wanted Angelo’s Acre, even though it is on a busy section of Commercial Street, near the city’s cargo terminal.

“I think there’s intricacies to both sites,” Batson said. “I feel we would be doing a disservice to our service providers to not recommend Angelo’s Acre at least for more of a discussion.”

City Councilor Spencer Thibodeau, who does not serve on the committee, urged his colleagues to eliminate Angelo’s Acre from consideration, given its proximity to the busy International Marine Terminal on Commercial Street. He was also concerned that it would have a negative impact on Harborview Park.

“From an economic development standpoint, I think the site is a mistake for a shelter,” said Thibodeau, noting the site would be better for housing and parking. “Based on the three sites before us, Riverside, to me, of the three, seems like the best.”

Homeless Voices for Justice Community Organizer Dylan Monahan said the group is worried that the city will no longer address homelessness with compassion if the shelter is hidden out in Riverside.

“We believe that locating the homeless services center at the Riverside location would increase the indignities, violence, and insecurity that people who are homeless face on a daily basis,” Monahan said in a written statement. “In addition, the Riverside site would contribute to the fear about hiding the homeless.”

Of all the sites being considered, Riverside Street drew the least public opposition. But Ray pushed back on the suggestion that the committee’s decisions were being driven by political expediency.

“There was public disapproval of Barron Center and I was still ready to support that site,” she said. 

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

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