The city is negotiating with county officials to use the Community Corrections Center on County Way in Portland as a temporary shelter for the homeless through the spring of 2021. Courtesy / Cumberland County Sheriff’s Office

PORTLAND — Homeless people staying at the Portland Expo who need to move out by next week may get new shelter at the Community Corrections Center or at a local hotel.

The Portland Exposition building has been used as a temporary homeless shelter that allows for appropriate social distancing since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic. Now, however, the Expo needs to be readied for in-person voting on Election Day next month and to allow the Maine Red Claws basketball team to resume activities there.

The city is close to finalizing negotiations to use through April 2021 the Community Corrections Center, a building on the edge of County Way that is part of the Cumberland County Jail campus.

“We can use the 44 or so beds already there and can house about 50 people in a socially distant way,” Kristen Dow, director of the city’s Department of Health and Human Services, said last week.

About 35 men have been staying at the Expo since April after the Oxford Street Shelter capped its nightly client limit at 75 because of the pandemic. The shelter before the pandemic often housed upwards of 200 people on winter nights.

The temporary use of the Expo worked well, according to Aaron Geyer, the city’s director of social services.

“Using the Expo has exceeded our expectations. It’s been an opportunity to keep a lot of folks sheltered and keep the social distancing the CDC has required,” said Geyer, who hopes to begin moving people out of the Expo early next week.

Tony Hawk, who has stayed at the Expo for the last four months, said it has been a good experience for him, and he would prefer to stay at the Expo rather than move.

“This has been a good place,” Hawk said. “I don’t know about going (to the Community Corrections building),” he said.

Peter Richardson, who has been staying at the Expo for the last “pretty quiet” month, said he is keeping his fingers crossed he won’t be moving over to the Community Corrections Center. He hopes to hear by Friday if he has secured an apartment in Westbrook or South Portland, he said.

The Community Corrections building includes 44 bedrooms for inmates who are transitioning back to society by working at local employers during the day. Courtesy / Jim Gailey

Cumberland County Manager Jim Gailey said the dormitory-like corrections building previously has been used to house inmates who have “shown good behavior and are at the tail end of the sentences” who can work in the community. That program was discontinued in March when a participant tested positive for COVID-19, and plans are for it reopen in June 2021.

The City Council had hoped to use the Cross Insurance Arena to temporarily house the homeless and provide services to them, but the Cumberland County Commission denied that request.

The use of the Community Corrections building is a “better solution,” Gailey said.

City Manager Jon Jennings said the city also is in negotiations to take over a local hotel through April. The hotel would provide 149 spots for the unhoused if needed. Throughout the pandemic, the city has secured rooms for the homeless at four nearby hotels.

Dow said the temporary solutions come as the city continues to work on a new homeless center planned for Riverside Street.

“We are still continuing to work on a permanent solution and looking at developing a new homeless service center,” she said.

The building is still in the design phase to determine how its different service areas, such as those for sleeping, dining, laundry, community policing, mental health, substance misuse and employment, will come together, she said.

A basic design drawn up in 2017 and feedback from community members will help guide that design work, said Councilor Belinda Ray, chairman of the Health/Human Services and Public Safety Committee.

“We had all the pieces, but we didn’t know how they are going to fit together. So now that we have the site, the size and the policy, staff is going back through things and trying to configure (the design) based on all the public process we have had,” Ray said.

“Once that is done, we’ll got through the site plan (approval process) and there will be a chance for the public to comment as it goes before the Planning Board.”

The goal remains to construct the new shelter in 2021.

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