The Sullivan Gym at the University of Southern Maine in Portland will be converted into a temporary shelter for homeless adults in the coming week to free up space at the city’s shelter and allow greater social distancing during the coronavirus crisis.

The university, which has shut down and sent students home, responded to a request from the Maine Emergency Management Agency, Maine Department of Health and Human Services, Maine State Housing Authority and homeless advocates, said Nancy Griffin, USM’s chief operations officer.

Additional shelter space is needed in Maine’s largest city because demand at the Oxford Street Shelter – the only municipally run, low-barrier shelter in the state – often exceeds its 154-bed capacity and the shelter cannot meet federal guidelines to keep cots or mats at least 6 feet apart during the coronavirus pandemic. Guests at the shelter are now sleeping about 2 feet apart, city officials said.

“We still have some things that need to be ironed out, but the hope is to have the shelter open by the end of next week,” Griffin said of plans for the Sullivan Gym.

The university has a standing agreement with the city of Portland to allow the gym to be used as an emergency shelter, Griffin said. Further, the University of Maine System signed a memorandum of agreement this week with MEMA to allow its facilities, supplies and even employees across the state to be used as needed to address the pandemic.

It will be a “wellness” shelter for 50 men and women who aren’t showing signs of illness, Griffin said. Guests will be required to undergo regular health screenings for COVID-19 symptoms such as fever, cough or respiratory congestion.

Portland officials have said the Oxford Street Shelter should have 75 fewer beds during the pandemic to meet recommendations of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The shelter has followed the recommendation to have guests alternate sleeping head to toe to reduce the risk respiratory transmission of the virus.

Located on Falmouth Street, just off Forest Avenue and Portland’s downtown peninsula, Sullivan Gym is a suitable site for a temporary shelter because it has bathrooms, showers and other amenities, Griffin said.

DHHS and MaineHousing will cover staffing, cots, bedding and other supplies, Griffin said. Meals will be provided by Sodexo, the university’s food service contractor. Details on how those meals will be served weren’t finalized, she said.

Preble Street, a nonprofit agency in Portland that helps people struggling with homelessness, housing, hunger and poverty, will operate the shelter under a grant from MaineHousing, said Cara Courchesne, spokeswoman for the state agency.

Preble Street continues to operate several housing facilities, a food pantry and a soup kitchen, Mark Swann, executive director, wrote Thursday in an email to elected officials and others. The soup kitchen has closed its dining room but still serves hundreds of meals-to-go daily, though concern remains about people gathering in large groups to pick up those meals.

Last week, Swann called on local, state and federal officials to find better ways to protect Maine’s vulnerable homeless population during the coronavirus outbreak. Initially, the agency recommended opening three additional shelters in the city, including at the city-owned Portland Expo and a building at 55 Portland St. that is leased to Preble Street.

The Expo was used as an emergency shelter last summer to accommodate an unexpected influx of migrant families seeking asylum. However, the city is unable to staff the Expo or other municipal spaces as emergency shelters during the current crisis, said Jessica Grondin, city spokeswoman.

Portland officials agreed to temporarily lift zoning that would block an emergency shelter at 55 Portland St. Grondin said last week that Preble Street has since decided against operating a shelter there, but a spokeswoman for Preble Street said Monday the nonprofit is still offering the building as a shelter if and when it’s needed.

So far, new arrivals at the Oxford Street Shelter have remained steady as reports of coronavirus cases in Maine, especially Cumberland County, continue to rise, said Aaron Geyer, Portland’s director of social services.

Oxford Street registered 44 new intakes in the last two weeks, from March 12-26, with 47 new intakes during the previous two weeks and 36 new intakes in a two-week stretch in February, Geyer said.

“In general we are holding steady at roughly 40 intakes every two weeks,” Geyer said.

However, other shelters across Maine have closed to new intakes, Geyer said, resulting in an increase in calls for space availability at Oxford Street and raising concern that other cities and towns may be sending homeless residents to Portland.

Of the 44 new intakes at Oxford Street since March 12, only 10 said they were from Portland, Geyer said. And staff members saw a police cruiser from a nearby town drop a person off at the shelter, Grondin said.

“Cities and towns still have an obligation to provide emergency shelter services to their residents,” Grondin said. “They can’t just be dropping people off at the Oxford Street Shelter and thinking their obligation doesn’t exist.”

Note: This article was updated Monday, March 30, to add a statement from Preble Street saying that is is still offering 55 Portland Street as a possible shelter site.


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