Winter is coming, and staff members for the city of Portland are working against the clock to house dozens of people who each year seek emergency shelter during freezing nights when they have no other place to go.

The lack of emergency shelter beds across the city, made worse by the coronavirus pandemic’s limits on large group gatherings, highlights the disproportionate financial and logistical responsibilities Portland shoulders to care for a homeless population that comes to the city from all over the state and beyond, some city councilors say.

The city has until the end of October to find placements for roughly 40 people who have been staying at the Portland Expo before the facility is expected to be turned over to the Maine Red Claws. As the weather grows colder, more people who camped outside begin to seek shelter indoors, and in the past, the city has leaned on more than 100 overflow beds that this year will not be available due to social distancing restrictions brought on by the pandemic.

Further frustrating the search efforts was a decision by the Cumberland County commissioners last week rejecting pleas to use the Cross Insurance Arena for shelter and day space. It means the city will continue a broad search for appropriate places to house people experiencing homelessness.

Portland City Manager Jon Jennings Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

One option under consideration is an offer from the Cumberland County sheriff to repurpose the community corrections building next to the sheriff’s office and in the same complex on County Way shared by the Cumberland County Jail, according to an email message obtained by the Portland Press Herald from City Manager Jon Jennings that was sent to city councilors last week. The community corrections program was shut down at the start of the pandemic, and the building that houses it has 42 beds, bathrooms, showers and two day rooms.

The city also considered renting a former Family Dollar store, but to do so would required a three-year lease and more than $113,000 in upfront costs to outfit the building to be used as a shelter, according to Jennings’ email. Jennings said he did not think the Family Dollar building would work, because it would only provide 45 beds.

“I believe we can use the facility from the County and add in hotel rooms as needed to manage the transition out of the Expo in late October,” Jennings wrote.

The offer from the sheriff and Cumberland County comes after county commissioners met Monday and opposed any plan to use the Cross arena for homeless services, citing conflicting contractual agreements and the generally unsuitable nature of the building. They also voted down a move to give the city more time to provide information and answer questions about how such an arrangement might work. One commissioner, Susan Witonis, even suggested that once the city began providing services at the arena, it would be difficult to get the homeless clients to leave.

“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” of it, Witonis said. She later pointed to the protest encampment in front of City Hall this summer and “the mess they made.”

“Who’s prepared to have another situation like that?” Witonis said.

Councilor Belinda Ray said the discussion was disappointing, and suggested that the city needs to do more work communicating with the commissioners to break through inaccurate ideas about people experiencing homelessness.

“There were certainly some comments that generalized about people experiencing homelessness, stereotypes that weren’t particularly enlightened comments, and did not demonstrate an understanding of the issue or the people that we’re talking about,” Ray said.

“I see this as the commissioners not understanding the role they could play here. I think the folks who voted against this … assumed there were some other options out there, and there are not. We just do not have the housing that we need. We just don’t have the emergency shelter that we need. We don’t have all of the food that we need. And I think they underestimated the role that they could play.”

Although the city’s shelters are not running at full capacity now, and many of the people living at the Portland Expo could be absorbed into current facilities, the need for beds always increases when winter arrives, said Councilor Tae Chong.

Chong was also critical of surrounding municipalities, including South Portland Westbrook, which have about 25,000 and 19,000 residents, respectively, but have no low-barrier homeless shelters and whose General Assistance budgets are dwarfed by Portland’s, a city of about 66,000. During the 2019-2020 budget cycle, South Portland, for instance, budgeted $452,000 for General Assistance, and Westbrook budgeted about $562,000. In each city, the bulk of those sums – about $332,000 in South Portland $400,000 in Westbrook – paid for rental assistance.

Portland, by contrast, budgeted to spend nearly $3.7 million to run the Oxford Street Shelter, the state’s only municipally run low-barrier shelter; $1.6 million to run the family shelter; and another $7 million on General Assistance. Overall, the city planned for $13.1 million in social services expenses, and expected to receive about $8 million in state reimbursements, leaving the city to cover $5.1 million from its general fund.

Chong said other regional service centers, including Biddeford-Saco and Lewiston-Auburn, should be doing more to take in people from their regions, not only to lessen the financial burden on Portland, but because people have better outcomes when they can remain in their home areas, where they have family, friends and connections.

“I think General Assistance applications should be easier for people to use,” Chong said. “It should be connected to a 211 call. Instead of people saying, ‘Go to Portland and get General Assistance,’ they should call 211 and say, ‘What are your needs?’ And then based on the town they’re in, they work with the town officials to get the assistance they need, rather than just moving to a shelter in Portland to get assistance. People have neighbors and they have family members in their own towns, so they’re often better off getting a little assistance where they are and not being displaced, especially during COVID.”

South Portland City Manager Scott Morelli said the city is increasing its General Assistance budget 38 percent, to about $800,000, the single largest increase for any budget item this year. Morelli said he continues to work with Portland officials through the Metro Regional Coalition to develop ways for surrounding communities to directly contribute to Portland’s costs and develop supportive housing in their communities.

“I suspect if you were to ask those Portland officials which other community in the room has been most receptive to seeing an increased regional approach to homelessness, South Portland would be at the top of their list,” Morelli wrote in a statement.

Morelli also pointed to the secondary costs associated with the large number of people experiencing homelessness who are staying in South Portland motels that are paid for by the city of Portland. The number of calls to the police and fire department at the five motels in the city increased from 22 between March 15 and July 29 in 2019, to 68 during the same period this year.

Westbrook City Manager Jerre Bryant did not return a message requesting an interview.

Before the pandemic, Portland’s Oxford Street Shelter hosted up to 154 people each night. During cold winter nights, more than 100 more overflow spaces were available by lining mats and cots in the Preble Street Resource Center, the day room at the city’s shelter and the General Assistance office.

Currently, the city of Portland has reduced the Oxford Street Shelter from 153 beds to 75 to comply with CDC guidelines on social distancing. To make up the difference, the city converted the Expo to a 75-bed shelter, and has had about 40 people staying at the facility each night recently. Another 240 people are being housed in hotel rooms, which are paid through the General Assistance budget, with 70 percent of the cost being reimbursed by the state.

Historically, about a third of the people in Portland’s shelters previously lived in the city, another third have been from elsewhere in Maine and the rest are from out-of-state.

“It’s kind of like the rest of Cumberland County expects Portland to pick up the tab,” Chong said. “Putting people in a hotel is great, but it’s not conducive to getting a job or making progress in recovery. It’s not treating people experiencing homelessness in the right and proper way. And we’re coming into this important junction in the road. It’s not just the economic piece, it’s a public health piece. I think people are better off being served with wrap-around services in their hometowns.”

City spokeswoman Jessica Grondin said the city is in talks with Maine Housing about short- and long-term options for housing people experiencing homelessness, and there is a longer-range conversation between multiple municipalities and state government about bringing a regional approach to sheltering the homeless.

In June, MaineHousing Director Dan Brennan told legislators that the pandemic has made clear the need for a statewide approach that would likely call for “significant investments” in new buildings.

“I think there are lots of things on the table,” said Portland Mayor Kate Snyder. “Working with partners, expansion of the use of hotels, looking for options for what others may be able to contribute, whether that’s the county or others.

“There’s a lot of anxiety about a lot of things, and I think staff are conscious that they do their work thoroughly and carefully,” she added. “As careful and as thorough as we all want to be, there is a lot of eagerness to know the options, to know what the considerations are.”

But this winter, the city will not have the same capacity to provide about 75 overflow beds at the Preble Street Resource Center, which closed its day room in March because of the pandemic. The city has also in the past used the General Assistance office, which hosts 25 to 30 more, but that option will not be available, either. Separately, Preble Street is seeking city approval to convert its day room into an around-the-clock, closed shelter for 40 people, meaning their beds would be guaranteed without the need to line up outside each night.

Even the future of the Expo is in flux, as the Maine Red Claws are still waiting to hear from the NBA about whether the league will attempt to host a 2020-2021 G-league season, said the team’s president, Dajuan Eubanks, in a statement. Normally, the season begins in late October and ends in March.

“We are happy to work with the city during this difficult time as they have utilized the building as an important resource during the pandemic,” Eubanks said. “As a tenant of the Expo, we work together, but ultimately defer all decisions to the city of Portland, and continue to work with the city and Expo staff. There have been no discussions regarding playing our home games elsewhere.”


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