PORTLAND —  The City Council Monday after months of debate approved policy guidelines for a new homeless shelter, paving the way for the design phase and the resulting cost estimates of the new facility on Riverside Street.

The 654 Riverside St. shelter will replace the 30-year-old, city-operated Oxford Street Shelter, which is outdated, inefficient and expensive to maintain. The new shelter will be open 24 hours a day, seven days a week and will provide meals and services the current shelter doesn’t offer, such as health and mental health care, substance use treatment, housing assistance, case management and employment assistance.

Much of the debate Monday centered on how many individuals the new shelter should accommodate.

Councilor Nick Mavodones said he prefers a smaller shelter and unsuccessfully tried to convince his colleagues to set a goal of having the shelter serve a maximum of 150 clients.

Councilor Belinda Ray said she feared that size would not meet the current demand.

“I worry if we build small, we will not have enough room for the people on day one,” she said.

Mavodones said he will continue to advocate for a shelter with a capacity closer to 150, but he felt time was of the essence in terms of setting policy guidelines.

“The new model makes a lot of sense to me,” Mavodones said. “We’ve been talking about this for quite a while. I was on (the council’s health and human services committee) four years ago and we were talking about this then. We’ve made progress, but it is very slow progress and there are people every day, every night who are negatively impacted by our slowness.”

Councilors Kim Cook and Justin Costa voted against the policy guidelines resolution, instead favoring an approach offered by Cook that would move forward with design only after implementing diversion and prevention measures and working with state and non-profit leaders to increase the number of low barrier shelters across the state. She also wanted to set aside quiet hours for the shelter and explore the possibility of having an outside entity run it, as is done in Houston, New Orleans and Washington D.C.

“I am convinced a scattering of low barrier shelters across the state is the solution,” she said.

Costa agreed Cook’s vision is the right approach.

“The time is right for us really to push on some of our community partners,” he said.

Cook estimated the new shelter could cost upwards of $10 million, but that cost won’t be known until the facility is designed.

The council’s approved guidelines, which are suggestions not mandates, call for the “housing first” approach, which focuses resources on giving shelter to the homeless as the top priority before offering other needed services. People with the longest history of homelessness should be housed first. Diversion and prevention tactics should be examined, and a triage center should be established to determine specific housing plans and the services needed for individuals.

The city should also work with other municipalities to develop a regional homelessness strategy to more equally distribute the responsibilities, the council agreed, develop a plan for transporting clients get to and from the shelter, and devise a clear policy for criminal trespassing orders when clients break shelter rules.

The new shelter will be large enough to accommodate 200, which has been the Oxford Street Shelter’s annual nightly census over the last three years and will provide meals only for those staying there.

 

 

 

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