Efforts to create a new homeless shelter in Portland cleared a key hurdle Monday night, as city councilors approved a resolution to guide the design and operations of a facility they’re looking to build on Riverside Street.

The resolution aims to create an emergency shelter that could handle an average of 200 people a night, while designating a separate location – possibly on the peninsula – to process people seeking shelter and trying to divert them to the correct facility.

Some councilors offered amendments that would have reduced the size of the shelter and required staff to receive commitments from state and nonprofit partners around funding and possibly lowing barriers, such as sobriety requirements, to access their shelters. But those were ultimately defeated.

Mayor Kate Snyder had previously said that she would advocate for a postponement so the council could consider a series of amendments offered by Councilor Kimberly Cook, who sought more detailed cost information and commitments from other shelter operators in Maine to reduce barriers to entry.

But Snyder said Monday much of that information cannot be known until the council gets past the policy issues.

“The resolution is intentionally broad and will allow staff to move forward in addressing the problem of Oxford Street,” Snyder said, saying she would pay close attention to costs and other unanswered questions. “I will be very involved and engaged as these decisions come down the pike with regards to all sorts of things.”


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 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.

Councilors decided against allowing additional public comment, including from an attorney representing 11 residents, many of whom live in the Riverton neighborhood.

Attorney Kristen Collins asked councilors in an email and letter to hire an independent consultant to study the city’s proposal to build a shelter six miles from downtown. They wanted to study whether the shelter would help clients, as well as impacts on transportation, emergency services, property values within a two mile radius and public safety.


“If this is not done, they will be circulating a citizens’ petition to control the size and management of shelters, so that the needs of the homeless population can be better targeted, and so that the impacts of shelters can be minimized and diffused,” Collins said.

It’s unclear what weight, other than symbolic statement, a citizens’ petition would have on the council’s decision.

One man, Joshua Holden, was upset that the council didn’t accept public comment. He rose and began speaking out of turn, telling councilors that he was formerly homeless. The mayor ruled him out of order and adjourned the meeting until he stopped.

Councilor Nicholas Mavodones offered an amendment to reduce the target size of the shelter to 150 people, but the motion failed 4-4, with Snyder and Councilors Jill Duson and Spencer Thibodeau in support. Mavodones said he’d continue to advocate for a smaller shelter throughout the planning process.

Cook, who was the only councilor in support of having additional public comment, offered a series of amendments to the resolution. The most significant amendment would have required staff 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.


But councilors stressed that staff was already engaged in this conversations and would not stop as a result of the council’s vote. In fact, City Councilor Belinda Ray said those regional and statewide conversations may stop if the council did not move forward.

“We have been a catalyst for those conversations,” Ray said. “There is good work happening and I expect to see things changing.”

Cook also recommended creating a quiet hours policy, but City Manager Jon Jennings said that, as well as other amendments, were operational in nature and could be recommended in the future.

Cook and City Councilor Justin Costa voted against the resolution, with the latter saying that the council needed to do more to build consensus among itself and residents.

“To me that’s the biggest part that’s missing here,” Costa said.

Heather Zimmerman, advocacy director for the nonprofit social service agency Preble Street, said she was pleased with the outcome.

“I think they made a decision to uphold what the with city has long understood – that we’re not a city that leaves people out to sleep or perish on our streets,” Zimmerman said. “That’s what happens when we don’t have an emergency shelter.”

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