City and county officials are working on a plan to use the community corrections center as a temporary shelter for homeless people currently staying at the Portland Expo.

The city needs to decommission the temporary homeless shelter, which opened in March to provide more space when the pandemic hit Maine, by Sunday so it can be used as a polling location and then turned back over to the Maine Red Claws.

The community corrections center – formerly the Joyce House – can accommodate about 50 people and the state has agreed to pay for up to 149 hotel beds to be used as as overflow space for the city’s Oxford Street Shelter. Both facilities would be available through April 30, according to city staff.

County Manager Jim Gaily said the facility at 50 County Way is like a college dorm, with as many as 44 single bedrooms spread out over two floors, a kitchen and day rooms, which could be used for additional beds. It also has an outdoor area that’s fenced in.

The city had previous asked county officials to open up a temporary shelter at the Cross Insurance Arena, but the proposal was quickly shot down. Gailey said he realized that the community corrections center was available, it has been vacant since June because of the pandemic. Cumberland County Sheriff Kevin Joyce agreed and “made it happen,” he said.

“When we started to look at the Cross Insurance Arena as a shelter, it presented a lot of challenges; but it also opened up a bigger conversation and whether we can come up with a better option,” Gailey said in an email Monday. “The Community Corrections building provides a safe and comfortable space for people experiencing homelessness, and using the County’s Federal CARES Act funds will reduce the local costs, too.

City Manager Jon Jennings said in a memo to city councilors said the shelter will be operated 24 hours a day, seven days a week by city staff, but is not expected to result in added costs to the city.

Jennings said the city is also close to finalizing a contract with an area hotel to provide accommodations for up to 149 additional people. Those rooms would be funded by MaineHousing and would be used if Oxford Street Shelter and the county facility reach capacity, he said.

A city spokesperson said that hotel would replace the scattered hotel beds currently being used as overflow for the Oxford Street Shelter.

The city’s Oxford Street Shelter will continue to operate at half capacity – about 75 beds – for the foreseeable future. And the city’s Family Shelter is currently at capacity, Jennings wrote.

The announcement comes as cold weather has begun to set in and the city struggles to provide services to a conspicuous homeless population that has been staying in Deering Oaks.

Dozens of people began hanging out in the park after the nonprofit social services agency Preble Street closed its resource center, a place where people could spend time during the day, access services and use the restrooms. The Portland Public Library also closed, further limiting access to restroom and daytime facilities.

Preble Street has since submitted applications to convert the resource center and accompanying offices into an overnight shelter for about 40 people. But the Planning Board would need to approve grant a change of use for the facility, while staff still needs to sign off on renovation plans.

Bangor is also seeing a rise in unsheltered homeless people. Police and service providers there recently cleared out roughly a dozen homeless encampments along the river that at one point housed more than 100 people, according to the Bangor Daily News.

The county jail had been the site of a homeless shelter until 1987, when its closure led to protests, including a tent city in Lincoln Park, according to a timeline about the city-run Oxford Street Shelter on the city’s website.

The city had been negotiating to acquire a piece of state-owned land next to the jail for a new homeless services center and possibly a new police station. But some advocate worried about the optics of locating a shelter near the jail and councilors ultimately selected a city-owned parcel on Riverside Street for the shelter, the planning for which has been delayed because of the pandemic.

Councilors applauded both the county’s and state’s willingness to help and expressed hope that such partnerships would remain once the pandemic is over.

“I’m very happy they have stepped forward and found a way they can assist (and) I hope this kind of collaboration can continue and expand,” said Councilor Belinda Ray, who leads the council’s health and human services committee. “I think that (county facility) is an excellent addition and very much needed in the city right now.”

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