The Preble Street Resource Center in 2019. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

The nonprofit social service agency Preble Street is planning major changes that would shut down long-running programs, eliminate group meals at its soup kitchen and convert its high-profile space into a 40-bed shelter.

The changes, which are driven by the need to prevent the spread of the highly contagious coronavirus, would substantially alter the way Preble Street serves poor and homeless people in Portland. The plan, which would require city approval, also would open up more shelter space in the city’s center – at a time when the city intends to build a new shelter near the Westbrook line.

None of Portland’s shelters was designed to allow people to remain 6 feet apart, as physical distancing measures require, said Preble Street’s executive director, Mark Swann. People at the city-run Oxford Street Shelter were sleeping on floor mats only inches apart when the pandemic hit.

“The days of really crowded shelters and soup kitchens and drop-in centers are behind us,” Swann said. “We’re not going back.”

Preble Street’s Resource Center has been a fixture in Bayside for three decades. As many as 300 to 400 people a day go there, meeting with caseworkers and attending to needs such as showering, doing laundry, using the telephone, getting mail and obtaining personal supplies.

Those services would be eliminated. Swann said Preble Street is working with other agencies to develop a collaborative program to help people access such services.

But the Resource Center has long been a focal point of criticism for local residents. They say Preble Street and the other social services in the area have pushed too many vulnerable people – those with mental health and substance use issues – into one small part of the city, creating problems in the neighborhood, including noise, trash and criminal behavior.

Some worry that a new shelter there could worsen the problems. Both the neighborhood association and the city councilor who represents the district said Wednesday that they will oppose Preble Street’s plan. Although the property at 5 Portland St. has been used as an overflow space for the city’s shelter for the past decade, shelters are allowed in that zone only as a conditional use.

After the coronavirus hit Maine in March, Preble Street closed its Resource Center and partnered with the state and the University of Southern Maine to create more space for about 50 people by opening a wellness center in USM’s Sullivan Gym. The city also opened the Portland Expo to create more space and dedicated two apartment buildings for people who had been exposed to COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.

Running the Sullivan wellness center was an epiphany that prompted Preble Street to refocus its priorities, Swann said. Clients who have long histories with the agency finally found the peace and comfort they needed to begin addressing the underlying causes of their homelessness, he said.

In 2018, Swann expressed a desire to get out of the shelter business – Preble Street operates a youth shelter and woman’s shelter – and refocus the nonprofit’s mission on connecting people to social services. Last year Swann talked with City Manager Jon Jennings about having the city take over the Resource Center for its own use, but the discussion didn’t go anywhere.

Now, Swann has come 180 degrees. In addition to proposing to convert the center into a shelter, he’s rethinking his state-level advocacy, which he said has downplayed the importance of emergency shelters in favor of long-term solutions to poverty, such as supportive housing, universal health care and a livable wage. He said the agency is still committed to those goals and its other programs, but he will no longer downplay the importance of shelters.

Preble Street Executive Director Mark Swann at USM’s Sullivan Gym in April, shortly after it was converted into a wellness center. He now says, “The days of really crowded shelters and soup kitchens and drop-in centers are behind us. … We’re not going back.”  Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

“For years, when I have done my advocacy work in Augusta, I’ve said shelters are not the solution,” Swann said. “I’m never going to say that again, because it’s so obvious, it’s so apparent, how important shelters are as a solution during this public health emergency or, God forbid, we have a natural disaster or an extraordinary economic crisis in this country. It’s going to be the shelters that are left standing.”

Under his plan, the Resource Center would be renovated into a 40-bed shelter for men and women. The courtyard would be closed to the public and available only to the people staying at the shelter. He hopes to open the renovated shelter this fall.

Preble Street will not reopen its soup kitchen to indoor dining, Swann said. Instead, it will prepare food and deliver it to other shelters in Portland.

The nonprofit plans to move forward with its healing center for victims of human trafficking at 55 Portland St. That facility will provide counseling and social services but won’t be a shelter, drop-in center or soup kitchen.

Preble Street also hopes to build a 40-bed women’s shelter for domestic violence victims.

City officials have long called for nonprofit groups such as Preble Street to help provide emergency shelter, while also calling for a more regional approach to homelessness and supportive housing. But officials had little to say Wednesday about Preble Street’s proposal.

Jennings, the city manager, said in an email that he was not available for an interview.

Kristen Dow, the city’s health and human services director, declined to comment on the proposal, other than to say the city was part of the conversation and “navigating the changes as they come.”

Mayor Kate Snyder said Tuesday that she would need to be “briefed” about the proposal before speaking to a reporter. On Wednesday she referred questions to Belinda Ray, the city councilor who has been heading up Portland’s efforts to build a new shelter on Riverside Street.

Ray, whose district includes Preble Street, said she opposes the proposal and questioned whether the agency would be able to meet the conditions for operating a 24-hour shelter there. Those conditions include having all services on site, preventing people from lining up to get inside and having a plan to address neighborhood concerns, which she said the agency has failed to do in the past.

Ray said she was concerned when Preble Street informed the Bayside Neighborhood Association that it would not be able to conduct neighborhood patrols, like those occurring in response to complaints at the Sullivan wellness center.

“This is an organization that has not partnered with the neighborhood for the last decade,” Ray said. “They have had an adversarial relationship with the neighborhood at best.”

The Bayside Neighborhood Association opposes any efforts to put another shelter in Bayside.

President Sarah Michniewicz said Preble Street has a seat on the association’s board but has long ignored the neighborhood’s concerns. She fears those problems will worsen if the agency opens an overnight shelter.

“They simply have not been a neighborhood partner that we feel we can trust,” Michniewicz said. “They should be judged by the relationship with the community there, and for the past 20 years they have had a seat on the BNA board and that relationship has not been respectful.”

The association is also concerned about a five-year plan recently posted on the Preble Street website. It calls for additional shelters in Bayside, which she said conflicts with the city’s goal of distributing services across neighborhoods.

“It’s still concentrating vulnerable people in one neighborhood,” she said. “I thought that was the lesson we were getting from the pandemic – that concentrating people in one area is not the best practice.”

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