At least seven different hotels and motels in South Portland continue to shelter at least 150 homeless people as a result of the the COVID-19 pandemic.

Josh Pobrislo, a firefighter/paramedic and local health officer, said he knew of seven hotels throughout the city now housing people who would ordinarily be staying at shelters. The hotels, he said, are working with federal general assistance coordinators in Portland and South Portland.

One hotel, Pobrislo said, has been converted into an offshoot of Portland’s Oxford Street Shelter. The pandemic forced that shelter to cut its occupancy from more than 200 to 75 because of social distancing requirements.

Pobrislo said it’s likely other hotels are also housing homeless people via agreements with other local nonprofits, making an accurate count of hotels servicing area homeless people nearly impossible.

Data on the total number of homeless individuals living in the hotels is also hard to come by because the populations fluctuate, but Pobrislo said this week that the hotel working with Oxford Street has more than 100 people, and he knew of two other hotels that have a total of 43 people living there.

Jessica Grondin, director of communications for the city of Portland, confirmed there were 111 people living in a South Portland hotel to free up space at Oxford Street as mandated by pandemic restrictions.

Meanwhile, local first responders are proactively giving help and assistance.

“We’re now doing what Portland Police have done for years,” said South Portland Police Lt. Tom Simonds.

The South Portland Police Department’s health liaison and substance abuse liaison regularly visit the motels to work with homeless residents, Simonds said.

The South Portland Fire Department is taking similar action.

Pobrislo said the department ran a six-week grant-funded program last fall, sending medical personnel to the hotels to meet with any homeless people who might need medical attention, in hopes of preventing a medical crisis down the road. A similar grant-funded program is starting up this month, he said.

Some neighbors in the Thornton Heights area have posted in a Facebook group that they are concerned about the homeless staying in motels in that area. One posting last month appeared to include a photo from a security camera that residents said showed one of the homeless men staying at a nearby motel trespassing on private property. The posting prompted others to respond, wondering whether the homeless people posed a danger.

Simonds said calls to the police to respond to the hotels have increased since the pandemic began, but he said he could not break down how many calls were responses to complaints versus proactive policing. Last month, he said, the department had a total of 53 calls to six hotels on Main Street near the Thornton Heights neighborhood. In April 2019, there was a total of 11 police service calls to the same six locations.

Simonds said that trend is pretty consistent, even at other hotels housing homeless people west of Interstate 95, near the airport and The Maine Mall, though calls to the latter area often concern complaints from local businesses. In residential neighborhoods, he noted fewer than five calls with complaints in recent memory, and none of the homeless that officers encountered were malicious or wanted to harm anyone.

“We’ve not seen an increase of that,” he said.

Pobrislo said the people he treated often suffered from mental illnesses that made it hard for them to function, “but it doesn’t make them bad people. They’re not dangerous.”

City Manager Scott Morelli said this week that city officials have met with two residents about homeless, but did not indicate where. He said he wants people to reach out to the city if they see any problems.

“We’ve asked people to let us know if they see something suspicious, we’ll show up and see if we can help, understanding that our goal isn’t to criminalize homelessness but also helping to ensure that neighbors aren’t being threatened or trespassed on,” he said.

Morelli also said he expects an easing of pandemic-related restrictions on indoor gathering over the next several months to lead to shelters being able to re-accommodate more people, which will lead to the hotels being used less.

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