The 6,200-seat Cross Insurance Arena is ill-suited to house homeless people in Portland, the Cumberland County commissioners decided Monday night. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Cumberland County commissioners will not permit the city of Portland to use the Cross Insurance Arena as a temporary emergency shelter for the homeless, rejecting last-minute pleas from the mayor and five city councilors to consider the option.

In a unanimous vote, the five commissioners sided with the arena’s trustees in their assessment that the 6,200-seat venue is ill-suited to house people who have no other place to go during the coronavirus pandemic. Social distancing protocols and the disruption of the pandemic have forced the city to drastically reduce the capacity at its Oxford Street Shelter and led to the closure of other organizations and resources typically available to the homeless.

The city has taken up much of the slack left by the closures, and is running three emergency shelters and housing more than 240 people in hotel and motel rooms.

The vote came after commission Chairman Thomas Coward urged the commissioners to consider the shelter idea, and suggested he wanted more information before making a decision. Coward said there is a “Hooverville down in Deering Oaks,” alluding to the couple dozen homeless people who stay there during the day. The situation that has drawn complaints and increased calls for service by police and EMTs.

“This is a very unusual situation,” Coward said. “This is a request from a government body that we deal with all the time. They’re asking us for a favor. This is a pressing issue, and I think we should work in a way to address it.”

On Friday, Mayor Kate Snyder and five city councilors – Belinda Ray, Tae Chong, Kimberly Cook, Pious Ali and Jill Duson – sent a letter pleading with the commissioners to overrule the trustees. They argued that contractual issues and insurance conflicts can be worked out, and asked that the commissioners wait to hear how a shelter there could work before shooting the idea down.

The mayor and the councilors also seized on a line from the arena trustees’ that suggested the city “activate sites that already exist in the city and were designed to provide these critical services (for the homeless).”

That’s precisely the issue, the councilors wrote. “THERE ARE NONE. If there were, we would be pressing them into service immediately.”

But the commissioners ultimately were not moved, and voted 3-2 against a proposal by Commissioner James Cloutier to give the city more time to address the concerns. Cloutier recalled decades ago when the sheriff of Cumberland County sought to use the jail gymnasium as an emergency shelter, spurring a public conversation about housing the homeless.

“The sheriff had decided that things had fallen into his lap and it was time to either pass or take responsibility, and he took responsibility,” Cloutier said, adding later: “All we’re asking for is more information. Because like I said, when you don’t know the answer to a question … a good thing to do is get the answer, because otherwise, its very easy to make a mistake.”

But Cloutier was outvoted in that effort, and said that he, too, did not see how a shelter plan could be feasible at the arena.

Commissioner Susan Witonis urged the commissioners to stick together in their opposition.

“I feel very strongly that if we open this up, we’re leading ourselves into a big mess, because once they’re in there, we’re not going to get them out it,” Witonis said. She later pointed to the protest encampment in front of City Hall and “the mess they made,” Witonis said. “Who’s prepared to have another situation like that?”

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