A group of Portland residents is pursuing a citizen initiative to limit the size of new homeless shelters and block the city’s plan for a 200-bed shelter near the Westbrook border.

The proposal, which organizers hope to get on the November ballot, would limit the size of new shelters to 50 beds. That would exclude the 200-bed homeless services center planned for Portland’s Riverton neighborhood. Organizers say it will not affect the city’s existing Oxford Street Shelter, which has a capacity of 154 people.

The effort is being launched as the city is soliciting bids from local developers to build the new shelter on Riverside Street, which would include a medical clinic, soup kitchen, and meeting and counseling space for area service providers. People who need shelter would sleep on beds rather than floor mats, which are currently used at Oxford Street. The deadline for proposals is next week.

Stephanie Neuts, a leader of Portlanders for Safer Shelters, which opposes the size of the city’s proposed shelter, said in a news release Tuesday that the referendum “should come as no surprise” to the mayor and City Council. Neighborhood residents vowed in a letter to city leaders last year to move forward with a referendum if the city did not change its plans, she said.

Neuts said the initiative is needed because the city’s plan to build a large shelter continues to move forward, despite a turnover of five of the nine council members, including the mayor, since the decision was made in 2019.

“After years of pleading with our city leaders to reject the mega-shelter approach in favor of smaller scattered shelters and to work with the state and other communities to ensure services throughout the Portland region and beyond, we are left with no other option than to put the question to Portland voters,” Neuts said in a written statement.

Mayor Kate Snyder said she is not yet taking a position on the referendum. Although the vote to create the new shelter occurred before she became mayor, Snyder said the size of the shelter is driven by historical demand for shelter beds prior to COVID-19.

Snyder noted that most smaller shelters are run by nonprofits and specialize in serving specific groups. But Portland has the only municipally-run, low-barrier shelter in the state. And the city is looking to build a modern replacement with enough space for community partners to provide services on site, separate women from men, and have additional, flexible space.

“The need for those beds has been demonstrated and if we decide that all shelters need to be smaller shelters then I think it’s basically making a decision, at least initially, to reduce the number of beds made available,” Snyder said. “If Riverside had a maximum of 50 beds, there would be a need for additional beds, so the community, the state and region would have to talk about what are the options for meeting that need.”

The Oxford Street Shelter, shown in 2018.

Portland has been working on a plan to replace the city-run Oxford Street Shelter, which serves single adults, for the past five years or so. Over that time, the councilors have toured shelters in Massachusetts, expanded the areas of the city where shelters are allowed and adopted standards meant to protect clients and address neighborhood concerns.

Councilors are also working on zoning rules for smaller shelters and developing an annual licensing program for shelters. And they are considering enacting a moratorium on new shelters in the Bayside neighborhood, which has long been home to most of the social services provided by the city and nonprofits. In recent years, the city has been looking to break up that network, arguing that vulnerable people in need of help are forced to congregate in the neighborhood and are easy targets for drug traffickers and other bad actors.

City Manager Jon Jennings and city staff originally recommended building a new shelter next to the city-owned nursing home, the Barron Center, on Brighton Avenue. But that plan was pulled amid community pushback. Councilors then surveyed the city’s inventory of land for an alternative location, eventually landing at 654 Riverside St.

The City Council approved a request in February for qualifications and proposals for developers interested in building a new shelter to lease back to the city. Responses are due back to the city on Tuesday, April 27.

City officials hope to have the new, 200-bed homeless services center ready for occupancy within two years.

The group submitted their request for petitions to the city Tuesday. The city code states that the clerk’s office has seven days to prepare the petitions. Once issued, proponents have 80 days to gather the 1,500 signatures needed to place it on the November ballot.

Neighborhood residents fought unsuccessfully to get the council to reduce the size of the shelter, noting that prior to the pandemic the Oxford Street Shelter had 154 mats, plus overflow.

The proposed referendum would limit the size of emergency shelters to 50 people, but the cap would not apply to shelters serving families or victims of domestic violence. It would require those shelters be open 24 hours a day and provide services either in person or through video conferencing.

It would also remove a requirement that shelters be built within a half mile of a public bus route, among other changes.

Bill Higgins, a homeless advocate who is part of the citizen effort, said Maine is finishing up a new statewide plan for addressing homelessness that prioritizes funding for smaller shelters.

“It makes absolutely no sense why Portland officials are stubbornly implementing a decision made two years ago, before this (state plan) was even contemplated,” Higgins said in a written statement. “It is time our mayor and City Council take a deep dive into the planning that is going on at the state level and ensure that we are building shelters and supportive housing to truly meet the needs of our unsheltered neighbors.”

Higgins and Neuts said in an email that the 50-person cap was based on the “lived experience of those involved with this effort as well as with social service providers” who were consulted. They said family and domestic violence shelters were excluded because they serve parents and children and they typically have more privacy. They also said a local domestic violence shelter is awaiting funding for an expansion and “we wanted to ensure that this initiative would not impact them.”

Their initial filing includes the signatures of 10 individuals. In addition to Neuts and Higgins, they are: State Rep. Grayson Lookner, Homeless Voices for Justice advocate Carolyn Silvius, Maine People’s Housing Coalition organizers Zoe Brokos and Sydney Avitia-Jacques, charter commission candidate and Disability Voters of Maine board member Patricia Washburn, social worker Frank Sanfilippo, mental health counselor and Nason’s Corner resident Sally Bowden-Schaible and Nason’s Corner resident Cecilia Smith.

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