Portland officials are looking to hire a firm to design a new homeless shelter on Riverside Street now that the City Council has settled on the site, the size and other policy guidelines.

But they are moving forward under the threat of a citizens’ initiative that would result in a citywide vote to reduce the size of the shelter and place other limits on it.

City Hall Communications Director Jessica Grondin said Tuesday that the City Council has approved $125,000 to hire a firm to design the new shelter. That firm will be selected through a request for proposals, although Grondin did not know the timeline for that process.

Neither City Manager Jon Jennings nor Social Services Director Aaron Geyer responded directly to questions about the plans Wednesday. Mayor Kate Snyder said she was hoping to meet with Jennings in the coming days to figure out next steps.

Meanwhile, a group of Riverton neighbors and other residents is calling on the city to re-evaluate its plan and at the same time gearing up for a possible petition drive to reduce the size of the shelter, which is expected to accommodate an average of 200 people and provide space for overflow. If a petition drive moves forward, it would force a citywide vote on the issue, although it’s not clear how soon a referendum would be held.

Organizers of that effort say they want the city to voluntarily hire an independent consultant to study the city’s shelter plans, including whether it can effectively serve the city’s homeless population and how it would affect nearby property values, transportation systems and emergency services.

Kristin Collins, an attorney representing the Portlanders for Safer Shelters group, said she is currently drafting ordinance language that would control the size and management of the shelter, but she declined to provide details until the proposal was drafted.

“The way we see it, a shelter is a land use just like any other land use,” Collins said. “There’s mention of shelters in the city’s land use ordinance, but no real regulations, so this would augment those regulations.”

Stephanie Neuts, a Riverton resident and a member of the group, which includes people from other neighborhoods, hopes councilors will agree to hire a consultant and schedule community meetings with residents and homeless advocates about the shelter plans.

Neuts said the group believes the city should create two to three shelters throughout the city that serve specific populations, rather than “warehousing” everyone in a facility that’s about 6 miles from downtown. Those scattered shelters should be smaller than the 200-person facility currently envisioned and with limited overflow, she said.

“We are just hoping to limit the number of guests that stay in any shelter at night for their safety,” Neuts said. “We need to set some community meetings where we’re listened to … and to find what fits everybody’s needs the best and they’re not just warehoused in one spot.”

A resolution approved by city councilors Monday says the new shelter should have “ample capacity” for the average nightly census at the Oxford Street Shelter, which was 200 people over the last three years. It also calls for “adequate capacity” to handle overflow on site. And it directs staff to establish a triage, or intake, facility on the peninsula or in another convenient location, where individuals experiencing homelessness can go for counseling “to determine their best path forward.”

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 city staff 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.

The city also plans to purchase a 12-passenger van to supplement the public transportation that’s available. And the new shelter is expected to contain amenities that the current 154-bed Oxford Street shelter lacks, such as a soup kitchen and dining room, medical clinic, community police station and counseling spaces.

The city currently spends a little more than $10,000 on transportation for shelter clients. Initial estimates suggest those costs would increase fifteen-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.

Grondin said it was too soon to say what impact, if any, a petition would have on the city’s planning effort, because she hasn’t seen the proposal.

“It is important to remember that under Chapter 9 of the City Code, the citizens would be limited to only proposing an ordinance that impacts legislative matters, and they specifically would not be able to impact appropriations or the tax levy of the city,” Grondin said.

The mayor said she hasn’t had a chance to discuss the group’s requests – or the potential petition drive – with councilors. “I really don’t have any comment at this time,” Snyder said.

When asked about the request for an outside review of the city’s proposal, Grondin said there had already been “an enormous amount of process and input.”

“We’ve been working with our community partners and the community at large for more than three years to get us to this point,” she said. “We look forward to beginning this next stage as we seek to create a safe and modern facility to more appropriately and efficiently serve those in our community who need emergency shelter and wrap-around services.”

Collins said the group would make a decision within the next two weeks about whether to move forward.

“Mostly likely something will end up having to be petitioned,” she said.

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