The Portland City Council is scheduled to vote Monday on policies for a new homeless shelter it’s planning to build on Riverside Street.

But whether that vote will actually occur remains to be seen.

City Councilor Kimberly Cook

City Councilor Kimberly Cook is proposing substantial amendments to a proposal that already has undergone hours of public hearings. If the council decides to waive its rules, her amendments may trigger another public hearing Monday and additional council discussion, raising the possibility that the council could postpone the vote once again.

“I’ve tried to fill in a number of gaps in policy areas, whether it’s deciding how to fund a shelter or fully exploring with state and other partners how to get a statewide network of low-barrier shelters,” Cook said. 

Portland Mayor Kate Snyder Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

Mayor Kate Snyder, who took office in December, said she’s leaning toward postponing the vote, so councilors can discuss possible amendments and get more concrete details about the costs of building and operating a new shelter, as well as what role the state and other communities can play in helping to address homelessness.

“I feel quite strongly that one of the most important roles of any elected official is to understand the annual operating budget implications of any decision we make,” Snyder said. “Also, with the landscape changing with Gov. (Janet) Mills and (General Assistance) funding changing and the expansion of Medicaid and all of that, I want to understand the landscape we’re in now versus the one we were in a couple of years ago.”

Portland has been in the process of planning for a new emergency shelter for years, including a tour of several Massachusetts shelters back in 2016.

The current Oxford Street Shelter is a former three-story apartment building and attached auto garage. It began as a 50-bed shelter back in 1989 but now has a capacity of 154 people, who sleep on thin floor mats, rather than beds.

The shelter, which serves single adults, is often full, so officials often set up an additional 75 mats in overflow space at the Preble Street Resource Center.

The new shelter would offer onsite services, such as meals, medical care, community policing station and counseling areas, which the current shelter lacks. Oxford Street clients get meals two blocks away at Preble Street and access health care and other services at various locations throughout Bayside.

In 2017, the council opened up additional areas of the city to allow shelters and last year chose a piece of city-owned land on Riverside Street for a new emergency shelter. Prior to that, shelters were only allowed downtown.

Since then, councilors have been debating new policies to apply to the new shelter, including whether to cap the number of people it would serve and how many beds it would have.

Some councilors were interested in adding a residency requirement to serve only people from Portland or from communities that help fund the shelter, but that approach would be difficult to enforce and could lead to the loss of state and federal funding.

Cook is proposing a series of amendments to the policy recommended by the council’s Health & Human Services and Public Safety Committee.

The resolution forwarded unanimously by the three-member committee says the new shelter should have “ample capacity” for the average nightly census at the Oxford Street Shelter during the previous 12 months, which was 213 as of Dec. 31. Although it sets no hard cap on access, the resolution holds out the possibility for a cap in the future, should demand drop.

The resolution calls on the city to continue its efforts to find permanent housing, especially for long-term shelter stayers, and stresses the need for a regional strategy to combat homelessness. It also calls on the city to ramp up its diversion program to keep at-risk people from becoming homeless. A similar program is used by the Pine Street Inn in Boston, which city officials toured in December.

Robert Pulster, of the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness, who participated in a January workshop in Portland, said the city was “on the right track” with its planning and policies, especially its plan to bring services on site. He stressed the importance of ensuring adequate transportation to and from the shelter.

While some have accused the city of wanting to build a “mega-shelter,” Pulster said he didn’t have concerns about the size, saying that the city could subdivide the interior into dorms for certain populations.

“I think it’s important to size the shelter with what the data tells you the need is,” Pulster said. “There are ways they can make it work with 200 people in a facility.”

The most significant amendment offered by Cook would require the city to first implement a program to divert and prevent people from entering the shelter in the first place and receive a commitment from state, municipal and nonprofit officials to establish a network of low-barrier shelters around the state before bringing forward a shelter design.

Portland is the only municipality in the state that operates its own low-barrier shelter, which means people do not have to be sober, participate in any programs or meet other requirements to stay there. Cook said that 40 percent of the people who stay there are from other areas of the state.

That requirement, however, would likely delay construction of a new shelter – a reality Cook concedes. But she thinks it’s worth trying to get more help throughout the state.

“We have had this system for 30 years in Portland and it’s not working well,” Cook said. “We need a new approach, and that new approach needs to be more than building a large shelter with services within it.”

Cook said her amendment would not mean the city would have to get another community to build a shelter. It could be as simple as convincing existing shelters to change their policies and reduce barriers to entry, she said.

She also wants to have the intake process done at a central location, rather than at the new shelter, though she has no specific location in mind. She also wants a plan to fund the construction and operation of the new shelter, including partnering with private entity.

The council’s decision last year to locate the new shelter in Riverton – Cook’s district – was criticized by residents, people experiencing homelessness and some service providers, because it would be 6 miles from downtown, where many of the services are located.

Officials have vowed to provide robust transportation in addition to the public bus line located a quarter-mile away on Forest Avenue.

The city currently spends a little more than $10,000 on transportation for shelter clients. Initial estimates suggest those costs would increase 15-fold to more than $150,000 – an estimate that includes $35,000 for a new 12-passenger van and nearly $100,400 for the salaries and benefits for two additional employees.

City officials have estimated that the new shelter would cost nearly $4.5 million to operate, compared to the nearly $3.8 million operational costs of the existing shelter. And three years ago, officials estimated $7.9 million would be needed to build a new shelter.

City Councilor Belinda Ray could not be reached for an interview Friday. But Ray defended her committee’s recommendation as “appropriate, wise and fiscally prudent” in a Press Herald op-ed Friday.

She said state and federal laws require the city to provide shelter to anyone wishing to remain in Portland and argued against efforts to reduce the size of the shelter.

“The path forward is clear,” Ray wrote. “We must pass the policy resolution with the current capacity guidance intact, move forward on the new facility and achieve greater regional involvement so that together, as a state, we can work together to prevent and end homelessness in Maine.”


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