Portland has struggled with homelessness since the 1980s, when the Cumberland County Jail shelter closed and over 100 people established a tent city in Lincoln Park in protest. Today, the city-run Oxford Street Shelter is by far the largest low-barrier shelter in Maine, and the only shelter with unlimited overflow. Portland’s City Council has recognized that homeless services will be better provided in a less centralized model and is planning to replace Oxford Street with three separate facilities: one low-barrier shelter and two additional facilities for homeless individuals, in partnership with local nonprofits, to serve seniors and those with significant mental illness.

Currently, Oxford Street Shelter routinely serves 200 to 250 people each night. Surprisingly for a city-run shelter, 40 percent of those served there come from other Maine municipalities, while 32 percent are from outside Maine. Despite having the same population today that we had in the 1980s, the city has increased the number of shelter beds it operates from 20 to over 400, between Oxford Street and the city’s family shelter. Portland has six shelters; together, they constitute 40 percent of all shelter beds in Maine.

We are at a critical juncture in planning to replace the Oxford Street Shelter. The City Council is on the verge of setting the size and key operational policies for the new shelter.  Since opening a 20-bed shelter in 1987 and expanding the number of beds repeatedly over the decades, there is no record of any council votes to approve or constrain these expansions before they occurred.

For the first time, the council must now face several key questions: What role should our city government play in providing shelter within our state? How many shelter beds should we build? Should city property taxes be used to subsidize shelter and other services for residents of other communities? Should we seek a nonprofit organization to build and operate the new shelter? If not, how should the city pay for the cost of building and operating this new shelter?

Ultimately, the right solution is a network of low-barrier emergency shelters and supportive housing across our state. There are only five low-barrier shelters in Maine:  three In Portland (Oxford Street; Florence House, for women, and Milestone, for men); Hope House in Bangor, and 20 low-barrier beds at Homeless Services of Aroostook, locked off from the Presque Isle shelter’s 29 family beds. The rest of Maine’s shelters restrict access in some way: e.g., sober, families, teens, domestic-violence victims. Portland’s generosity and compassion have unintentionally resulted in centralizing homeless services in our city, and this approach has served neither those experiencing homelessness nor the rest of Portland well. What is needed now is the political will at the state level and in municipalities to work together to plan and implement this network of shelters and housing around our state.

I am convinced that the new low-barrier shelter in Portland should be similar in size to, or maybe even slightly larger than, other low-barrier shelters in Maine. Planning for three shelters, including a smaller low-barrier shelter, is in no way proposing to “cap” services or shelter beds in Maine or Portland. Preble Street and all other shelter providers in Maine “cap” the number of beds at their shelters and turn people away when they are at capacity. Just as nonprofits are constrained by space, staffing and budget, so is the city of Portland. Given that it will take at least two more years to plan and develop these new shelters and close Oxford Street, there is ample time to implement a new approach in Maine that ensures access to shelter.

On Feb. 3, the City Council is scheduled to vote on a recommendation to build a 210-bed low-barrier shelter with sufficient room for additional overflow beds. This new shelter may cost over $10 million to build and $1 million more annually to operate than Oxford Street now costs. As my colleagues and I decide on the size and operational policies of this new shelter, we must consider the well-being of those seeking shelter while recognizing the fiscal and community impacts of perpetuating the concentration of homeless services in Portland. Now is the time to speak up and let your city and state elected officials know what you think is the right path forward.

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