Preble Street Resource Center plans to deliver meals to the homeless, eliminating the line of people who now line up to be served at its soup kitchen at 5 Portland St. Michael Kelley / The Forecaster

PORTLAND — The Preble Street Resource Center has provided sit-down meals and drop-in services for the city’s homeless population for more than 25 years, but the coronavirus pandemic has forced the center to change the way it operates.

New plans call for the center at 5 Portland St. include setting up a 40-bed wellness shelter and food production facility at the site. The Bayside Neighborhood Association opposes Preble Street’s plans and has written a letter protesting the changes to Mayor Kate Snyder and members of the City Council.

Preble Street realized amid the pandemic that having 300 to 400 people coming to its soup kitchen for three meals a day and providing drop-in services at its resource center is not viable anymore, said Executive Director Mark Swann.

“We can’t see a scenario where we go back to the way things were,” Swann said.

MaineHousing Director Dan Brennan told legislators in June that the pandemic has shown Maine’s approach to shelter services are inadequate and that the state has a “generational opportunity to make significant change.”

“We need a new shelter system. We need a new approach,” Brennan said June 4.

Swann said that new approach at Preble Street means using the soup kitchen as a food preparation space and bringing food to the homeless where they live rather than serving 1,000 meals a day at facility. The soup kitchen has been operating that way since March when it closed due to concerns about the spread of the coronavirus.

The drop-in space at the center, where counselors help clients find housing and employment, will be renovated into a 40-bed shelter for men and women. The shelter will be staffed 24/7 and will take some of the burden off the city’s nearby Oxford Street Shelter, he said. That part of the plan needs Planning Board approval, but the hope is to have the shelter open by fall.

Preble Street’s new outreach effort and other shelters’ programs will have to replace the services that will no longer be offered at the Resource Center, such as the use of computers.

“This puts pressure on shelters to provide services (and) there are concerns there will be people’s needs that won’t be met. One of the ways we are addressing that is with our new outreach team,” Swann said.

“It was not an easy decision, that’s for sure, but the post-COVID 19 world will look a lot different for homeless services,” he said.

Longer range projects in Preble Street’s 2020-2025 plan include opening both a healing center at 55 Portland St. to support survivors of human trafficking and a women’s shelter somewhere in the area. Swann said Preble Street serves 40 women at its Florence House Women’s Shelter and 12 young women and girls at its Joe Kreisler Teen Shelter. About 25% of those staying at the Sullivan Wellness Shelter at University of Southern Maine and at Preble Street’s quarantine shelter at a local hotel are women.

Bayside Neighborhood Association opposes Preble Street’s plan of locating more homeless shelters in the Bayside neighborhood.

The Bayside section of the city is home to a cluster of homeless shelters and neighbors feel it is time for other parts of the city and region to share that burden. Courtesy / Bayside Neighborhood Association

Bayside, the section of the city between Marginal Way, Franklin Street, Congress Street and Forest Avenue is home three shelters and four overflow spaces, as well as Preble Street’s resource center, soup kitchen and teen center.

“Clustering all of Portland’s most vulnerable people into two blocks in one small neighborhood marginalizes them and has, unsurprisingly, fostered an unsafe environment that sets them up to fail,” said Bayside Neighborhood Association President Sarah Michniewicz.  “It has also overwhelmed a residential neighborhood with a small population who have historically been unable to garner much attention to our legitimate concerns.”

For years, she said, homeless people have congregated around the Preble Street Resource Center.

“This area is known as a place where behaviors that would not be tolerated in a shelter are allowed or at least too overwhelming for the (police department’s) mental health and substance use liaisons and officers to keep people safe. There is an ingrained culture of chaos and despair that a new shelter or food delivery is unlikely to change,” she said.

Swann said he expects a less congregating with the changes.

“Instead of 300 to 400 people coming in and out everyday, there will just be the 40 people staying there,” he said. “It’s a different model. The traffic in and out the building will be significantly diminished. I think that’s a good thing for the neighborhood and community.”

Michniewicz said as services for homeless individuals and families have increased over the years in her neighborhood, so too have calls to police. The area, which represents 1% of Portland’s landmass and 5% of its population, generates more than a fifth of all calls to the police department, she said.

The neighborhood board says it is time for other parts of the city, region and state to “participate in the responsibility of caring for people experiencing homelessness in Maine,” Michniewicz said.

“For the health and safety of both those people experiencing homelessness and those who live and operate businesses in Bayside, this Council, the City of Portland, and the State of Maine have a duty to ensure that new shelters be sited outside of Bayside,” Michniewicz wrote in a June 17 letter to the City Council on behalf of the board. “It’s time to stop putting broken people in a broken system into the same broken neighborhood and expect different results.”

There are plans in the works to pull one homeless shelter, the city’s Oxford Street Shelter, out of Bayside, but the time table for doing so has not been finalized.

 

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