A week after being opened to alleviate overcrowding at the city’s homeless shelter, a temporary shelter at the University of Southern Maine has been serving far fewer people than expected and city officials are blaming the nonprofit organization running it for not accepting enough clients.

Preble Street, a nonprofit social service agency in Portland, began operating the temporary shelter at the Sullivan gymnasium on April 3, with a goal of accepting 50 people who at the time were staying at the city-run Oxford Street Shelter. As of Thursday, the gym was serving 16 to 21 people. Executive Director Mark Swann said Friday that the logistics were finally in place to increase capacity, and he expected 40 to 50 people to shelter there overnight.

The move was intended to relieve overcrowding at the city-run shelter so its staff and clients could adhere to physical distancing guidelines to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, which causes COVID-19, a serious respiratory illness that is particularly dangerous to people with underlying health conditions, and those who live in congregate care settings.

City officials say the Oxford Street Shelter remains overcrowded. The shelter cannot hold more than 75 people if the city is to provide the recommended 6-foot buffer between mats. On Thursday night, 92 people were staying at Oxford Street.

Both the Oxford Street Shelter and the USM gym are being used to shelter people who have no symptoms or known exposure to the coronavirus.

The city is using separate facilities to care for sick individuals and shelter people who have been exposed. Four people who have tested positive for COVID-19 are being cared for at the city-run Family Shelter, which was emptied by sending those families to hotels. And 38 people were staying at the Portland Expo building, which is being used as quarantine space for people who may have come into contact with someone who has tested positive.

City Councilor Belinda Ray said Preble Street has been using the USM gym to shelter people who had not been staying at Oxford Street and has not been transparent with the city about its admission process.

“It is unclear from where they are sourcing candidates for the shelter, but it is quite clear they are not working transparently or collaboratively with the City of Portland or helping to spread out the population seeking shelter at the city’s Oxford Street Shelter – which is the explicit purpose of this facility,” Ray said.

Swann said those claims against the nonprofit are “not accurate at all.”

The shelter is serving clients referred by the city, as well as those familiar to Preble Street and those who show up at the shelter, he said. Swann said the nonprofit is using a statewide database to confirm that people staying at USM have some connection to the Oxford Street Shelter.

Swann said he’s proud of his agency’s efforts to open a new shelter within two to three weeks. He said the agency has had to add and train staff, and address a range of issues, including security, before it could begin serving 50 people.

“This has been a logistical and operational effort like I have never seen in my years here at Preble Street,” Swann said. “It’s not a surprise there may be a few glitches or communication concerns. All and all I think things are going well.”

City officials disputed Swann’s assertion.

Mayor Kate Snyder said she was “not yet” satisfied that the USM shelter was operating as it should, but was careful not to cast blame. She acknowledged the need for better communication, while defending both city and Preble Street staff who are working under difficult circumstances.

“The whole point is to alleviate crowding at Oxford Street,” Snyder said. “It’s clear the staff of Preble Street over at USM gym and Oxford Street staff need to continue to talk in terms of getting on the same page about how folks are being referred from the Oxford Street Shelter.”

The Oxford Street Shelter, shown in 2018, cannot hold more than 75 people if the city is to provide the recommended 6-foot buffer between mats. On Thursday night, 92 people stayed there. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

At issue is what each entity considers a client of the Oxford Street Shelter. City officials say the USM shelter is supposed to be accepting people who are currently staying at the Oxford Street Shelter, while Preble Street appears to be serving some who haven’t stayed at the shelter for over a year.

According to a city analysis of the 16 people listed as clients at the USM shelter Thursday, only two had been staying at Oxford Street.

The lack of a formal agreement between the city and the nonprofit only adds to the confusion. The Maine Emergency Management Agency has a formal agreement with USM to use its facilities and MaineHousing has an agreement with Preble Street to finance the shelter. But there is no agreement between the city and Preble Street about which clients to serve.

The coronavirus has upended Portland’s emergency shelter system because of the huge risks of spreading the virus in congregate care facilities.

The Oxford Street Shelter can normally accommodate 154 people, provided they sleep on thin floor mats only a foot or two apart. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends people in shelters sleep at least 6 feet apart to avoid spreading the virus.

City officials originally tried to create physical distancing by having clients sleep head-to-toe, and initially dismissed Preble Street’s suggestion to open the Portland Exposition Building as an additional shelter. But after two cases of COVID-19 were diagnosed at Oxford Street, city officials opened the Expo as a shelter in a matter of hours on April 1.

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