Residents in Portland’s Riverton neighborhood remain upset with the decision to replace the Oxford Street Shelter, seen here, with a new one on Riverside Street. File

PORTLAND — City councilors have started to discuss how the replacement for the Oxford Street Shelter will operate – even as Riverton residents continue to urge them to reconsider the decision to relocate the shelter to 654 Riverside St.

The plan is to use vacant city land for a 150-bed shelter with space for social and health care services, including drug and alcohol counseling and employment assistance.

Gina MacVane, a resident of Riverton, pleads with the Portland City Council July 15 to reconsider placing a homeless shelter in her neighborhood. Courtesy Town Hall Streams

The Riverton site was chosen June 17 after locations on Brighton Avenue, County Way and Commercial Street were ruled out. The shelter on Riverside would replace 203 Oxford St., which councilors have argued is outdated, inefficient and expensive to maintain.

The City Council Health and Human Services Committee met June 25 to learn how Oxford Street operates and how it is serving the homeless population and is expected to take the topic up again Tuesday, July 30.

Councilor Kim Cook said she would like the committee to address site control, the entrance and exit at the building, lighting/fencing, as well as community policing standards and who the shelter will be serving: those who are staying there or others who may be homeless, but not staying at the facility.

Councilor Belinda Ray, the committee chairwoman, said there are a lot of things that need to be decided about how the Riverton shelter will operate.

“This is obviously going to take more than one or two meetings to get all the answers,” she said at the June 25 meeting.

Ray said she hopes to have the policy as to how the Riverton shelter will operate and what population it will serve in time to bring to the full council in September or October.

Those policy questions, Mayor Ethan Strimling said, are only part of the work that needs to get done before the shelter opens on Riverside Street. How much it will cost to build and operate is also a big part of the equation.

“There is a lot of work that has to happen before we get this thing built. It is going to require a serious cost analysis, which will have to go through the finance committee so we can get a better sense of what this thing is going to cost,” Strimling said last week.

Committee member Councilor Brian Batson said the lighting and fencing standards may better be dealt with through a site plan review.

“I acknowledge these things absolutely need to happen, but I want to make sure they happen at the right meeting,” he said.

Even though it’s been a month since the decision, Bailey Avenue resident Gina MacVane is still fuming.

She said she was so disappointed at the council’s action on June 17 that she slammed the door of the council chambers on the way out that evening. MacVane, like many of her neighbors, feels the site – in a largely industrial part of Riverside Street – does not belong in their neighborhood.

“I know there is a problem (with the current shelter). We all know there is a problem, but Riverside is not the right solution,” she said.

John McGovern said one of his biggest concerns regarding the shelter on Riverside Street is its proximity to the Presumpscot River. He said he fears homeless people will inadvertently fall into or drown in the river, which separates that section of the city from Westbrook.

“This is something that is going to happen in Riverton,” he told councilors, after reading from a newspaper article about homeless people drowning in New York, New Hampshire and Massachusetts. “It’s no place for a homeless shelter out there.”

McGovern, like MacVane, said he would like the council to reconsider its vote. That, however, is not possible unless a councilor on the prevailing side of he decision moves for reconsideration before the next meeting.

Strimling said a future council could take up the location of a shelter again, but for the time being, the council will proceed with Riverside.

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