Portland councilors expressed support for a plan to move the city’s social services and public health programs into a single downtown building, but said they want to take more time to weigh the concerns of neighbors.

Some community members defended the city’s plan and criticized neighbors, including  the Maine College of Art, whom they say have misplaced concerns about the safety of students and others.

Councilors who attended a Health & Human Services and Public Safety Committee meeting Tuesday night said the proposal to consolidate the programs would benefit both staff and clients. However, they wanted more time to discuss the proposal with neighbors and other community groups who were taken off guard by the aggressive timeline for making a decision.

“For so many reasons, I would support this but I agree we need to find a way to inject more community dialog,” said City Councilor Tae Chong, who leads the committee. “As the mayor said, this is the beginning of the conversation, but we also know there’s a looming deadline we need to meet.”

City officials had hoped to get council approval in the coming weeks to lease a two-story building at 39 Forest Ave., primarily because its existing lease for office space at 196 Lancaster St. expires on June 30. That space houses social services, such as the General Assistance office.

The new space would also house public health programming, including the needle exchange, STD/HIV testing and the Portland Community Free Clinic, which provides health care to low-income people.

The proposal was reported Saturday in the Press Herald. On Monday, the Maine College of Art and a local developer revealed that they are finalizing plans to build a 180-student residence hall next door at 45 Forest Ave. and were concerned that the city had not contacted them. Both MECA officials and the developer, Jonathan Culley, expressed concerns about student safety, specifically mentioning the high percentage of young women who would be living there.

Fairen Stark, a current MECA student, said Wednesday that she and other art students do not agree with the college’s concerns and believe what administrators have said goes against the college’s diversity initiatives. Stark and other students have started a petition, calling the statements made by the college president and executive vice president “inappropriate and classist.” She said she’s also begun a dialog with MECA leadership.

“I was very disappointed with the way they represented the college, and I believe that MECA needs to readdress their priorities and role within the Portland community,” Stark said.

In response to the concerns of MECA and others, the council’s Health and Human Services committee heard  public comments on the city’s proposal Tuesday evening. A staff member of Portland Stage Co. and a local real estate attorney also raised concerns about the proposal and the timeline. Others, including nonprofit social services providers, said they support the proposal and accused opponents of stigmatizing people in poverty.

Anita Stewart, Portland Stage’s executive and artistic director, said the nonprofit is also concerned about safety. She said the theater is only about 20 feet away from the proposed location and has had robust programming for children and nighttime shows attended by older adults. She was concerned about safety issues that might arise when the city offices are closed, and with the needle exchange, which is currently located on India Street.

“As neighbors, we feel left out of this process completely,” Stewart said. “Rather than learning about this through the paper, we would have greatly appreciated being involved in the planning process, having somebody contact us so that we could ask our questions and get them answered and maybe find a better solution.”

MECA President Laura Freid said in an interview that her concerns about safety stem from the college’s experience renting apartments for students in Bayside, which has a high concentration of city and nonprofit social service providers, including homeless shelters, day programs and the like. She noted that over 70 percent of MECA’s 500 students are female.

City staff and the nonprofit social services agency Preble Street pushed back against those concerns on Tuesday night.

HHS Director Kristen Dow said she used to work in the India Street Public Health Clinic and that experience, combined with her recent experience overseeing the city’s social services division, has proven the safety concerns are unfounded. Dow said she would allow her 18-year-old daughter to work or volunteer at the needle exchange.

“I can say first-hand our clients are amazing people and I am also including General Assistance in here,” Dow said. “There were some statements that were made (Monday) night that criminalized our clients of our clinics, harm reduction services and our General Assistance program.”

In response to questions about why two security guards and a metal detector would be needed at the planned facility if there are no safety issues, Social Services Director Aaron Geyer said the city has employed security guards at its General Assistance office since at least 2006. He said the city had contracted security services until 2017, when they decided to have existing, civilian staff provide security, in part to help people navigate their way around the office.

It was not clear Wednesday how long the office has used a metal detector and why. The metal detector would only be used at the GA office, not at the clinic or the needle exchange, Dow said.

Donna Yellen, a social worker and deputy director at Preble Street, said she supports the city’s move and also pushed back on safety concerns.

“There were some very surprising statement that revealed ignorance and harmful stereotypes of the families and individuals who access General Assistance and the city’s health services,” Yellen said.

Elizabeth Elicker, executive vice president of MECA, said Wednesday that “we at MECA care deeply about providing essential services and support to Portland citizens; our concerns are regarding the specifics of what is being proposed.”

Elicker said Tuesday’s meeting helped the college better understand the city’s proposal, but more time and conversations are needed. “We invite the opportunity that more time will afford for substantive conversation, collaboration and problem solving.”

Harold Pachios, a well-known Portland attorney, sought to reframe the debate as a matter of land use policy. Pachios said his family owns property on Forest Avenue that they want to develop, but may not move forward if the city relocates there. He stressed that he is a longtime Democrat who supports social services and public health programs.

“I think we’re off on an issue of who respects people and who does not and that’s not what the issue is here,” Pachios said. “I do believe in the dignity of these clients. I do want help. I think it’s a real estate issue.”

While generally supportive of the city’s proposal, councilors made clear they want more time to consult with community groups and neighbors. Dow said she is scheduled to meet with neighborhood associations in Bayside and Parkside next month, but councilors said more needs to be done.

“The abutters are significant voices that must be attended to,” Councilor Mark Dion said. “They have raised some concerns already that I think require a legitimate and thoughtful response.”

City Councilor Belinda Ray said she supports the plan, but suggested the city host a meeting similar to those it requires of developers, which involve providing notice to councilors, abutters and other interested parties.

Mayor Kate Snyder described Tuesday’s meeting as the first step and said she would work with staff and councilors to conduct neighborhood outreach.

Dion suggested – and other councilors agreed – that city staff should try to negotiate a grace period for the Lancaster space and the proposed location in the event that public outreach has not been completed. The pending deadline of June 30, Dion admitted, made him and others in the community anxious.

“I don’t like being anxious,” he said.

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