City officials are defending plans to use a vacant community corrections building as a temporary homeless shelter this winter after a surge of criticism via email and on social media.

The plans were made public Monday and the city issued a follow-up news release Wednesday afternoon fending off criticism about using a facility near the Cumberland County Jail to shelter people who are homeless. It said that using the Community Corrections Center, which is empty because of the pandemic, and an area hotel would result in an increase of 30 shelter beds over the winter.

The new facilities would replace the temporary shelter set up inside the Portland Expo basketball arena as a way to relieve crowding in the city’s primary shelter and allow for more social distancing. The Expo will be used as a voting location on Nov. 3 and then be turned back over to the Maine Red Claws, Portland’s professional basketball team. The plan also would consolidate clients who are currently scattered among several hotels. The corrections center and the hotel would be used from Oct. 25 to April 30.

Health and Human Services Director Kristen Dow said the corrections center, which the county manager has informally called the Joyce House, is separated from the Cumberland County Jail by a road and another building. She said as many as 50 people would have their own rooms, where they can sleep and store their belongings, as well as indoor and outdoor day spaces.

Dow said the critical emails and social media posts contained misinformation – primarily conflating the center with the jail – that could discourage people from using the shelter during the cold winter months. She stressed in an interview that city workers, not corrections officers, will be staffing the facility and that people will not be locked up inside.

“This is going to be run like our other shelters,” Dow said. “People are free to come and go as they please.”

Dow said she expects the city to sign a formal agreement with the county in the next day or so. No City Council action is needed. Officials don’t expect any additional costs associated with the use of the correctional center and city officials have said the Maine State Housing Authority is paying for the 149 hotel rooms.

A bedroom at the Community Corrections Facility. City of Portland

The Community Corrections Center at 20 County Way usually houses low-risk inmates who are nearing the end of their jail sentences and are beginning their transition back into the community. County Manager Jim Gailey said he initially referred to the center as the Joyce House and that name has stuck with city officials, who have used it in subsequent news releases and the formal memorandum of understanding.

The informal name has been dismissed by critics who worry that using a corrections facility would traumatize members of the homeless population who may have had negative experiences with police.

Some critics have also used the announcement to pressure the city to fast-track an application from nonprofit social service provider Preble Street to build a 40-bed shelter in Bayside. That proposal had its first Planning Board workshop Tuesday, although it is months away from opening, if it’s approved.

“You must ensure that Preble Street’s resource center will be made into a 40-bed shelter,” Sadie Ouillette wrote to the mayor and other city officials. “I am also asking you to not house folks in the Cumberland County Jail Complex. The city has already criminalized and policed houseless people enough – 85 CTOs have already been ordered, and the Portland Police have been harassing and policing the community for decades. Housing folks in the jail will only encourage further policing and criminalization. Portlanders deserve to have shelter without being criminalized.”

Dow said that none of the roughly 40 people who have been staying at the Portland Expo expressed concern when the announcement was made. She said they were excited to learn they would be assigned their own rooms. Even so, Dow said, the city would work to find other accommodations for those who feel uncomfortable staying at the corrections center.

City officials and service providers, however, noted the difficulty of finding adequate space for a shelter elsewhere in the city.

The Community Corrections Facility has separate rooms for 50 occupants. City of Portland

Brian Townsend, executive director of Amistad, a nonprofit that serves people with mental illness, said in a written statement that the city vetted the proposal with his nonprofit and other services providers, who supported the plan because of the dorm-like setting. He said “the scarcity of available, appropriate spaces has been one of the greatest challenges” to shelter the city’s unsheltered homeless population.

“The fact that guests at the Joyce House will have their own rooms is an incredible advantage and selling point, as is its location on the peninsula and its nearness to needed supports and resources,” he said. “The proximity to the jail is a noted and, for some, uncomfortable reality, but in discussing this option with people currently experiencing homelessness this issue has not been raised as a notable concern. These individuals cited accessibility, safety and access to meals as their greatest concerns. The Joyce House provides all of the above.”

Preble Street Executive Director Mark Swann mentioned the city’s plan during a Planning Board workshop on Preble Street’s proposal to convert its shuttered resource center at 5 Portland St. into a 24-hour shelter for 40 people.

While he did not express support or opposition to the plan, Swann stressed that the corrections center is only temporary and that permanent, smaller shelters are needed. He predicted that even with the temporary city shelters there would still be 50-60 people without shelter his winter.

Swann also alluded to the difficulty in finding buildings and properties in greater Portland for a new homeless shelter, saying Preble Street placed a bid on another property in May but was not successful.

“We have looked at other property to rent, buy or borrow in other parts of Portland, other towns and surrounding cities,” he said. “We are still looking and honestly I hope other nonprofits are doing the same.”

The Planning Board received hundreds of emails in support of Preble Street’s plan, the vast majority of which were form emails with the subject line, “Don’t leave people out in the cold.” Several senders were from surrounding communities, including Cape Elizabeth, Scarborough, Windham and Topsham.

“With so many people sleeping outside during a public health emergency and as winter approaches, this initiative is desperately needed,” the emails state. “Preble Street is not asking for City funds and is only seeking Planning Board approval for necessary COVID-informed renovations to the building. Please do not leave people out in the cold.”

But it’s unclear when Preble Street would be able to open the shelter, if it’s approved. It’s not likely to open in 2020, based on the permitting process and renovation timeline.

Board members requested additional information and another workshop to address concerns of neighborhood residents, who have criticized the nonprofit for not working with neighbors to address concerns over the last 25 or so years. Once all of the requested information has been submitted, the proposal will need to receive a public hearing and vote. And none of that has been scheduled.

City staff still need to sign off on the nonprofit’s site plan applications, as well.

Swann said it would take six to eight weeks to renovate the building into the new shelter, once approvals are in hand.

Chairman Brandon Mazer said board members requested more details about how Preble Street would receive and respond to neighborhood concerns and additional information about how many more beds the shelter could hold once the coronavirus precautions, such as spacing bunks 8 feet apart, are no longer necessary. The board also wanted the nonprofit to address how continuing to operate a food pantry and a central kitchen that prepares meals for other shelters would affect traffic, noise and litter in the neighborhood, he said.

City officials, Mazer said, were asked to provide staff input from other city departments, such as Health and Human Services and the police, and additional background about the historical use of the property compared to the permitted use.

Mazer said the scheduling of the next workshop depends on how quickly the additional information can be assembled and presented. But the next meeting would not be until November at the earliest.

While the email campaign makes an emotional argument, Mazer said, the board, as a quasi-judicial body, is tasked with ensuring that the proposal meets all of the standards outlined in the code. He said the process is complicated by the fact that Preble Street is the first to go through the process of seeking a conditional use approval to open a new overnight emergency shelter and will be setting a precedent for future applications, especially with the required management plan.

“It sounds cold, but the board really needs to take the emotion out of it and look at it like any other conditional use,” he said. “They are setting the standard and I think the board has a high expectation about what’s in that management plan. It was put in there for a reason and we want to make sure it’s covered.”

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