Oxford Street Shelter Directer Sara Fleurant addresses questions from the Health and Human Services Committee last week at a hearing on operation recommendations for the city’s new Riverton homeless shelter. Michael Kelley / The Forecaster

PORTLAND — Several members of the public last week spoke against recommendations on how to run the new Riverton homeless shelter, including capping the number of clients allowed per night at 150.

Policy decisions on the new shelter’s operations must be made before the building’s design and cost can be fleshed out. The shelter is needed, city leaders have said, because the 30-year-old facility at 203 Oxford St. is outdated, inefficient and costly to operate. The new shelter at 654 Riverside St. would have a number of on-site features, including medical clinics, counseling services, 24/7 access and warm meals, that are not offered at the Oxford Street facility.

Sara Fleurant, director of the Oxford Street Shelter, said after reaching out to 15 community partners, including Portland Police and other agencies, her staff recommends opening the new facility to non-Portland residents and capping the number of shelter guests to 150 (plus an additional 25 in overflow during inclement weather or emergency situations).

The staff also recommends that services at the Riverton shelter be limited to clients only, Fleurant said, except for the health clinic and community policing center, which would be open to the neighborhood as well. In addition, the city should operate a shuttle for clients to get to and from the shelter, she said.

Partners she spoke with were “largely opposed to a residency requirement,” supported the services largely being for clients only and were divided on whether the facility should have a cap on the number of people staying at the facility, Fleurant said at a meeting of the City Council’s Human Services and Public Safety Committee.

Committee Chairman Belinda Ray said she remains concerned about capping occupancy at the center at a level that doesn’t fully meet the demand. If the facility is built too small, she said, “we are going to find ourselves in dire straits.”

“It is so much easier to scale down a facility,” Ray said.

Homeless advocates meet outside City Hall before an Oct. 8 public hearing on a new homeless shelter. Michael Kelley / The Forecaster

No action was taken at the Oct. 8 meeting, but Ray said she expects the committee to begin acting on recommendations Oct. 22.

“I do hope to be able to flesh things out at our next meeting that could result in a vote,” she said.

As committee members review recommendations, Councilor Kimberly Cook said she would like to start seeing some costs associated with those decisions.

“Considering these policy decisions without the budgetary impact or costs feels like we are only considering part of the equation,” she said.

Several people who spoke at the public hearing said they felt their concerns regarding the homeless shelter were not being heard. Others indicated they were emphatically against any sort of cap because it would just expound the problem the city has with homelessness. They were skeptical that a city-run shuttle would be convenient enough for people to get to and from the shelter, employment and appointments.

Dr. Courtney Pladsen of the National Healthcare for the Homeless Council said a cap would force people on to the streets and burden the city’s emergency response services.

“Maine is always held up as a beacon for having a low number of unsheltered individuals and I am concerned as the largest community in the state, if we are capping our numbers, we are going to see huge reversals in that,” she said.

Cullen Ryan of Community Housing of Maine said he would like to see Riverton be a “low-barrier shelter” that would help connect the homeless to the services and support they need. A low-barrier shelter is one that, according to the city, “minimizes barriers such as paperwork, waiting lists and eligibility requirements.”

Stephanie Neutts said she would like a small group of Riverton area residents to meet with committee members and social service staff to come up with ways to operate the shelter in their neighborhood.

“Riverton needs to be part of the process if it is going to be successful,” she said. “I don’t think that has happened yet.”

Jess Falero, a resident of the Florence House, said she would like the comments from those who are dealing with homelessness, like herself, be a bigger part of the committee’s decision-making process.

“I want you to start to stand up with us and have a heart for those without a home,” she said.

Cheryl Harkins, an advocate with Homeless Voices for Justice, agreed.

“You need to know what people are going through and what their obstacles are, because you are not going to know if you have never been in that situation,” said Harkins, who said she spent seven years homeless because of a domestic violence situation.

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