The Planning Board last week approved Preble Street’s plan to build a 40-bed homeless services center at 5 Portland St. Courtesy / Preble Street

PORTLAND — Preble Street’s new 40-bed shelter will help provide temporary shelter to the dozens of people sleeping on city streets and parks, but Carolyn Silvius, an advocate with Homeless Voices for Justice said it will do much more than that.

“It will save lives,” Silvius said, “and that is what we are so grateful for.”

The Planning Board last week approved the shelter at 5 Portland St., where Preble Street operated its drop-in resource center for close to 30 years. The drop-in center, which included a dining-in soup kitchen and provided health and social services, was shut down last spring because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Silvius said 88 people now without shelter are sleeping outdoors in the city. In 2020, 64 homeless people died, including two who froze to death while sleeping outside; 43 homeless deaths were reported in 2019. Homeless advocates gathered and marched in Portland last weekend to remember Joy Cyr and others who have died due to the impacts of homelessness.

Many of those who are unsheltered can’t access existing shelters, Silvius said. Some have been denied access because they have been issued a criminal trespass order from Oxford Street Shelter for their behavior incident there.

Participants kneel during a moment of silence at a Jan. 9 rally that was held to remember those who have died due to the impacts of homelessness. Shawn Patrick Ouellette / Portland Press Herald

“The Preble Street shelter that has been proposed will be able to house half of the people who cannot access shelter for one reason or another,” Silvius said. “It’s not going to solve the problem by itself, but it will help.”

Caitlin Corrigan, health services director at Preble Street, agrees.

“I can’t overstate the impact it will have on the people who are unsheltered,”  Corrigan said.

The plan is to have the shelter open within two months of receiving the building permit, she said.

It won’t be ready for the coldest months of the year, but the city this winter plans to provide 293 beds, 75 at the Oxford Street Shelter and 218 at area hotels through an arrangement with the Maine Housing Authority.

The Preble Street shelter will provide meals, laundry facilities and health and social services to its clients.

While the plan has strong support, including from a number of residents in the area, the Planning Board approved it Jan. 5 over the objections of the Bayside Neighborhood Association. The group said it was concerned about adding another shelter in Bayside and about Preble Street’s ability of Preble Street to manage neighborhood issues that arise.

Corrigan said Preble Street staff has agreed to attend at least 75% of neighborhood association meetings. Shelter clients will be asked to sign a document that outlines behavior expectations both at the shelter and in the neighborhood. A 24/7 phone number will be offered for community complaints, and the calls will be logged and tracked.

Preble Street will also create an advisory group made up of representatives from the neighborhood, Preble Street, Portland Police, the city and the homeless community to review complaints and recommend any needed operational changes.

In addition, it agreed to  regularly update the City Council’s health and Human Services Committee and the Police Department about the number of clients served, neighborhood concerns, number of calls for service and number of criminal trespass orders issued.

Bayside Neighborhood Association said in a statement Tuesday that it welcomes the opportunity to collaborate with the shelter as a member of its advisory board. It also said it will continue “to advocate for strong and enforceable licensing standards to make sure Preble Street enforces the management plan and fulfills its promises to both the neighborhood and its clients.”

Silvius said the pandemic has proven that smaller shelters are the safer way to provide emergency housing. At Oxford Street Shelter, the city has capped the number of beds at 75. The council’s Health and Human Services and Public Safety Committee was set to talk Tuesday, after the Portland Forecaster’s deadline, about smaller shelter licensing and zoning.

Meanwhile, the city continues “to move forward” with its plan for a 150-200 bed homeless services center on Riverside Street to replace its Oxford Street Shelter, according to  Jessica Grondin, the city’s communications director. The new shelter would be open 24-hours a day, 7-days a week and offer meals, health, mental health and substance misuse services, housing assistance, case management and employment services.

Tae Chong, chairperson of the city council’s health and human services and public safety committee, said the Riverside shelter is in the design stage right now, but the big question is the funding piece and whether there would be any state or federal funding for the project.

Some councilors, however,  have expressed concern about locating the shelter on Riverside Street, among them new Councilor Mark Dion, who represents the Riverton area where it will be built. New At-large Councilor April Fournier told the Forecaster she’d urge the council to rethink the location.

“COVID has made us go back to the drawing board for so many things,” Fournier said in October. “In my mind there is no reason, since we are living through a pandemic, we shouldn’t relook at that decision and say it won’t be a good fit from a public health perspective.”

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