The courtyard at Preble Street Resource Center is currently fenced off and closed. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

The nonprofit social services agency Preble Street is moving ahead with plans to convert its daytime resource center on Portland Street into an around-the-clock shelter for 40 people, a proposal that has already drawn opposition from neighbors who say Bayside does not need another shelter.

Preble Street submitted planning documents to the city Aug. 28 requesting a conditional use permit for the $700,000 project. The formal application comes as the community struggles to provide basic services to dozens of unsheltered people, many of whom are spending their days at Deering Oaks and have no access to bathrooms or other facilities with private and public buildings closed during the pandemic.

However, Preble Street’s proposed shelter is months away from opening its doors, assuming it wins city approval. And a separate proposal to use the Cross Insurance Arena as a temporary day shelter has run up against logistical and legal problems, leaving no clear solution as colder months approach.

Preble Street Executive Director Mark Swann estimated that more than 100 people are sleeping outside in the city, and that because of public health requirements brought by the coronavirus pandemic, there will be an even greater strain on current resources when winter comes and camping out is more difficult.

“For years, shelters crammed in as many people as possible trying their best to keep people out of the cold and out of the elements,” Swann said. “We can’t do that anymore. We’re going into a winter with so many people sleeping outside. It’s wrong, it’s unsafe and it’s unhealthy during a public health crisis.”

If approved as designed, the Preble Street project calls for knocking down most interior walls of the second floor to create an open concept design where shelter staff would be on hand around the clock for a limited roster of approved clients, a so-called “closed” shelter that mirrors the rules at the emergency wellness shelter established at the Sullivan Gymnasium on the University of Southern Maine’s campus during the spring. The Planning Board is expected to take up the proposal this fall.

Swann said the experience at USM showed how giving people a safe place to stay every night, even for a couple of months, gave them the stability and rest they needed to address the underlying causes of their homelessness.

Before the pandemic, people lined up each evening to get a spot in Portland’s primary shelter or in an overflow space, and they had to get up and leave each morning.

There would be no line each night for a bed at the Preble Street shelter, Swann said, and all services would be provided on-site, two key requirements for city approval.

Preble Street’s courtyard at the corner of Portland Street – which before the coronavirus usually brimmed with clients smoking cigarettes and hanging out – will be surrounded by a 6-foot-high privacy fence, with the interior accessible only to shelter residents.

But the plan has already met with opposition. Sarah Michniewicz, president of the Bayside Neighborhood Association, said Preble Street’s leaders have refused to engage with surrounding residents on quality-of-life issues and public safety concerns, and that any trust between neighbors and the nonprofit evaporated long ago.

Michniewicz said she would be more open to more shelter beds in the neighborhood after the city follows through on its plan to build a modern homeless shelter near the Westbrook line in order to shut down the aging city shelter on nearby Oxford Street. Until then, she said, concentrating services for the state’s most vulnerable populations in one neighborhood will continue to be a failed approach, and a housing-first approach will continue to be the best strategy.

“It’s circular logic,” Michniewicz said. “It’s created this feedback loop (of) ‘we have to do everything here because everything is here.’ The bottom line is this neighborhood is overwhelmed and it has been for many years. So the thing that I think we need as a neighborhood is a balance. and that’s never been a conversation about getting rid of all shelters in the neighborhood, or all social services.”

Portland City Councilor Belinda Ray Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Another opponent of the plan is City Councilor Belinda Ray, who represents the neighborhood. In July, Ray said Preble Street has been an adversarial neighbor, at best, and questioned the organization’s ability to meet the city requirements for a zoning exception.

The city’s staff has not weighed in on the plan yet – spokeswoman Jessica Grondin said administrators can only form a position once all the application paperwork is complete.

Although emergency homeless shelters are a fixture of urban life across the nation, there is very little research on what constitutes best practices at them, said Jill Khadduri, founding director of the Center on Evidence-based Solutions to Homelessness.

Khadduri said a recent qualitative study of homeless encampments in four cities found that people are less inclined to stay at a shelter if they have to line up outside each night and leave early in the morning.

“People don’t want to go there if they can help it, especially if they are trying to work, because that (model) is really disruptive to people’s abilities to normalize their lives.”

Low-barrier, 24-hour shelters where people are guaranteed a bed are more desirable, especially when they permit people to work and live more autonomous lives, she said. Better still, she said, is a rapid transition to permanent housing.

“It used to be quite some years ago that people differentiated between people who were ‘ready’ to be a leaseholder because they didn’t have severe mental health issues or behavioral health issues, and people who needed transitional housing in which they overcame their challenges,” Khadduri said. “There is very strong research showing that people who are even substantially challenged do better when they have a place of their own, than when they’re in a place they can’t stay permanently, they are under supervision, and they don’t have full autonomy.”

Bobby Bergeron, a homeless man living in Portland, waits to enter Preble Street Learning Collaborative on Sept. 4. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

The city has allowed people in its overnight shelter to stay 24 hours since expanding access in December 2017 and during the pandemic opened the Portland Expo to create more 24-hour shelter space, in addition to dedicating two apartment buildings for people who had been exposed to COVID-19 and providing hotel rooms for dozens more.

Many of the people who remain unsheltered have been barred from shelters because of rule violations or choose not to stay in them, in some cases because of mental health or substance abuse issues.

Preble Street operated an additional  24-hour shelter at USM during the summer, but that closed when the school was preparing for the return of students. The nonprofit  closed the doors to its Bayside day shelter in March because of the coronavirus crisis. Preble Street said that as many as 400 people each day visited their facility to use the bathroom, take a shower, do laundry or connect with a case manager.

In addition, Preble Street closed its soup kitchen and instead is offering more bagged meals and food pantry services that do not require people to stand in line or crowd into a dining room, and the change away from a congregate dining setting is expected to be permanent, Swann said.

Although Preble Street managers say they have been working in overdrive since the pandemic to change how they operate and continue to help people in need, the closure of the resource center and restricted access to the city’s library and other public and private buildings around the city means unsheltered homeless people have fewer places to go.

The lack of access to bathrooms and other facilities helped lead to a more than two-week-long protest encampment outside Portland City Hall this summer, but the demonstration ended with no clear plan about how to improve access and services for those camping out in the city.

With no place to go during the day, homeless people have been congregating in Deering Oaks, only to be kicked out by police every night at 10, when city parks close. Police calls to the park have skyrocketed since early July when compared with the same time period in 2019, according to statistics provided by the Portland Police Department.

Between July 12 and Sept. 3, calls to police regarding Deering Oaks nearly doubled, from 149 calls last year to 293 in 2020, according to a police department tabulation. Correspondingly, calls for service in the same time period to the resource center and the soup kitchen plummeted.

One potential short-term solution to the crisis is the city’s proposal to use the Cross Insurance Arena as a day shelter where people could rest and use the bathrooms.

However, trustees of the arena are expected to recommend against using the 6,200-seat facility as an emergency homeless shelter this fall and winter, citing safety concerns, conflicting contractual commitments and high staffing costs, according to a draft letter from the trustees to Cumberland County Commissioners. The commissioners are expected to meet Monday to take up the issue.

The arena is not conducive to safely operating an emergency shelter, and would require modifications and staffing that would prove prohibitive, the trustees wrote. The pathways from the arena’s floor area to the showers and bathrooms are too indirect, and offer too much access to “countless dark corners and passageways” that could make the facility unsafe.

The arena’s insurance policy also does not cover shelter activities, and although so far the pandemic has not required it, the trustees already committed to offering the space as an emergency care center if COVID-19 infections overwhelm local hospital systems. The Maine Mariners are also scheduled to begin their pre-season training in the late fall.

“We consider the Arena to be the public’s property; and recognize that in times of crisis, a facility like ours can be put to creative use in order to solve problems and serve the common good,” the trustees wrote in the draft communication. “In that tradition, the Board of Trustees approached the request from the City with open minds and gave it thorough consideration – but we have determined that for a host of reasons, the Cross Insurance Arena should not be used as a temporary shelter.”

Note: This story was updated Monday, Sept. 14, to clarify that Portland’s Oxford Street Shelter has offered 24-hour access since 2017.

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