The Portland City Council voted narrowly Monday to build a new homeless services center in Riverton.

The vote came after a majority of councilors indicated they would not endorse either 654 Riverside St. or Angelo’s Acre, a gravel parking lot near the Casco Bay Bridge. Councilors debated forming a working group to discuss policies and procedures for the new shelter to win over reluctant councilors.

And once it was clear those issues would be discussed, Councilors Spencer Thibodeau and Brian Batson ultimately voted to support a new shelter at 654 Riverside St. in the Riverton neighborhood. The site was approved with five councilors voting in favor and four against. Councilors Kimberly Cook, Pious Ali, Justin Costa and Mayor Ethan Strimling opposed the site.

After the meeting, several people in the audience stormed out of the council chambers. Residents of the area had opposed the site, saying it would change the character of their neighborhood. Many members of the city’s homeless community also criticized the Riverside site because it is at the western edge of the city and several miles from the downtown service center, which includes career counseling and agencies that hire day laborers.

Cook has been pushing for the council to have a discussion and vote on a policy for its new shelter before selecting a site. She wanted councilors to discuss who should be served and how; the costs of building and operating a new shelter; and whether other locations should be considered.

“I have been looking to have this conversation for quite a while and it’s been held off for quite a while,” Cook said.


Cook said she supports having only one low-barrier shelter in the city, but 150 beds was too large. She said Portland can’t continue to be the only municipality in the state that offers a low-barrier shelter with overflow space.

“We are feeling the effect of that policy,” she said.

Councilor Belinda Ray, who leads the Health & Human Services and Public Safety Committee, which has led the site selection process, assured councilors that the committee would “absolutely” have those policy discussions after a site was chosen. She urged councilors not to put off making a decision on the location, citing the urgent need to build a new shelter.

“This is just one step in a very long process, but it is an essential step and we must take it,” Ray said.

Portland councilors are looking at ways to replace the Oxford Street Shelter, which has been in Bayside for the last 30 years. City officials say the facility, a converted apartment building and auto garage that is leased, is unsafe and unsustainable for both staff and clients. The shelter serves single adults.

City officials have envisioned a new facility that would have services the current shelter lacks. It would have actual beds, rather than mats placed on the floor. It would have a soup kitchen, medical clinic and kitchen, interior courtyard and space for counseling. It also would have a community policing station on site, in addition to security.


Last year, City Manager Jon Jennings proposed building a 200-bed homeless services center at the Barron Center. Councilors dropped that plan amid neighborhood opposition. Since then, the council’s Health & Human Services and Public Safety Committee has been working with staff to find other locations.

The committee winnowed a list of 700 public and private properties down to the two that were considered Monday night.

No public comment was taken Monday. But prior hearings featured residents in the affected neighborhoods, as well as others, urging the council to go back to the drawing board and form a task force to look at locations.

Costa said he supported a proposal by Thibodeau to form a working group to continue to examine the issue and bring a recommendation back to the council. He said that process would restore some trust and confidence in the council’s process.

Costa conceded that some concerns about a shelter threatening the safety of children and taking over a neighborhood were exaggerated, but they should be taken seriously. He also acknowledged that any site would face opposition. But he said he was unsure about how to vote and had heard concerns from others not directly affected, including elected officials.

“The opposition I hear goes way beyond that (not in my back yard) to people who understand how these things work and people who I have served with,” Costa said. “And that gives me a lot of pause, because of my own judgment I am not comfortable with either site.”

Strimling has consistently opposed either site, saying that the city should build and operate several smaller shelters throughout the city.

“I don’t support either one of them,” Strimling said. “It’s not a policy decision for me. To me the issues are these are too big and we need a different model.”

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