Opening a new emergency shelter – or, I should say, trying to open a new emergency shelter – is perhaps the most challenging thing a social service agency can do. The politics are terrible, the neighborhood response can be vicious, the funding is woefully inadequate to both build and operate it year after year and the work itself is challenging, draining and at times traumatizing for staff. This is true in Brunswick, in Bangor and across the country. And it’s certainly true in Maine’s largest city, Portland.

In the past 25 years only two new shelters have opened in Portland, while eight small shelters – spread throughout a few different neighborhoods – have closed. The two new shelters – Florence House and the Joe Kreisler Teen Shelter – were successfully opened by Preble Street only after bruising battles, including a lawsuit filed to stop one of them. A third shelter we’re opening at 5 Portland St. went through a similarly grueling process.

Fortunately, we had tremendous support from volunteers and activists in the community for all three efforts, including over 1,000 Portlanders raising their voices and lending their hearts during the lengthy public hearing process for our new wellness shelter. For that we are eternally grateful.

As if opening and running an emergency shelter isn’t already an incredibly difficult process, three different efforts are now afloat in Portland that will only add to the challenge: new licensing requirements for shelters; a moratorium on new shelters, and a citizen initiative to limit the size of any new shelters.

It’s heartbreaking that during a public health emergency, when the need for safe, professionally run, accessible, public health-informed shelters has never been more acute, there is increased energy to actually hinder, slow or stop entirely the development of new shelters.

It’s a lot easier to stop things than it is to create solutions. Negative power is so much easier to wield than working toward productive and attainable measures. To propose only to block or hinder the development of shelters without doing anything simultaneously to create the necessary pathways (zoning, funding, etc.) to establish those small shelters does nothing to promote the well-being of individuals experiencing homelessness. Nor does it serve the community at large.

It’s solutions that are needed, not hardline resistance. Placing blame on nonprofits, or on the city, or on surrounding communities, or on the state gets us absolutely nowhere. Nowhere. And placing blame on people experiencing homelessness themselves is not only unproductive but also classist and racist.

So, what is the solution? We need at least four new, smaller shelters in and around Portland. Shelters that are 24/7, accessible, professionally run with trauma-informed social work staff. We also need six new housing first apartments to open in and around Portland. And we need a stronger, collaborative and flexible model of care across the health and human service system.

There are organizations, and people, and state partners who know how to do all this. What’s missing is the political will to appropriately fund these efforts. It takes years, and relentless advocacy to open even one component of the essential comprehensive system that is needed.

With the appropriate funding in place, then the planning, implementation and operation of these programs need to be in the hands of those with proven expertise in this work, in partnership with people with lived experience of homelessness. It should not be left to politicians or public officials who mistake having power with having expertise.

We do need political leadership, of course. Politicians who will thoughtfully and productively engage in developing or finding the resources necessary to do any and all of the program planning and design. Just pointing fingers at the state or the federal government, or trying to shame other communities for inaction, will do nothing more than maintain the status quo: Poor people will continue to suffer, our parks and sidewalks will be filled with people who are unsheltered and the tragic cycle will just continue.


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