On Monday, the Portland City Council is slated to pick a site for a new homeless shelter.

Let’s start with the good: City staff and the council’s Health and Human Services Committee have done tremendous work, and have gathered a tremendous amount of information.

Let’s also emphasize the areas of agreement: No one wants what is happening in Bayside to continue. Everyone wants a better service model that delivers services more effectively, minimizes the externalities that the current system creates and treats our homeless friends and neighbors with the compassion and dignity they deserve.

Unfortunately, these things alone are not enough. For several reasons, the council should reject both of the flawed sites that are before us Monday.

First, the sites themselves are flawed.

Angelo’s Acre on Commercial Street is a uniquely bad site. It’s too small to site the single-story facility we really want to build. It abuts a residential neighborhood, is across the street from substantial industrial activities, sits at one of the entryways to the city and borders the most vibrant commercial area in the entire state. Moreover, the site would create unique problems for our marine economy and working waterfront by displacing desperately needed parking and flex space.

The proposed site on Riverside Street has environmental and other issues. More importantly, it is too far from other services, complicating our shelter operations and our work with community partners. That’s not simply the view of neighbors in Riverton; it’s also the opinion of some service providers who deal most directly with our homeless friends and neighbors.

Second, and more important than any particular site problems, is the issue of public trust. The majority of the public is simply not following us on this journey, and hasn’t been for some time. To be fair, some public concerns are overblown, exaggerating the risks of particular site features or glossing over the fact that the plan is to do something very different from what is currently done in Bayside.

But public opposition goes far beyond uninformed fears or the not-in-my-backyard impulse that will always be present. We have seen concerned neighborhoods continue to voice opposition to various sites long after sites in their own neighborhoods have been removed from consideration. I’ve personally received numerous comments from exceptionally well-informed individuals – including several who have served on this council – that they do not understand either the process or the rationale for the selection of the two finalist sites.

Leadership is about more than just getting to the “right” answer. It is also about bringing the community together, striving for consensus and taking the time to address public concerns before major decisions are made. The level of opposition we see should give us all pause.

Rejecting the two flawed sites before us doesn’t mean starting over; it simply means spending more time on site selection and neighborhood outreach. This can happen in the Health and Human Services Committee, through a task force or some other means, but it has to happen in a serious way if we are to rebuild the public’s trust.

While this happens, the city should work to change the policy landscape in Augusta and continue to work with other providers to explore additional partnerships. First, we must continue to work with Gov. Mills to undo the damage done to shelter providers by then-Gov. Paul LePage’s changes to reimbursement rules and other funding formulas. Second, the city must continue to work with other providers who have new opportunities to help treat mental health and substance abuse disorders because of Medicaid expansion. We may be able to identify additional partnership opportunities, and potentially even reduce the size of a new facility.

Ultimately, this is a difficult call. We all know that the situation in Bayside needs to change yesterday. But we should not let our desire to “do something” lead us to overlook the flaws in these sites or ignore the level of public opposition that has grown up in response to our current process. The goal is to build a new shelter that treats our homeless friends with the compassion and dignity they deserve while maintaining the trust and support of our broader community. We still have work to do.


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