The city will begin renovations at 39 Forest Ave. next month. The building will be the new site for the public health and social services divisions of the city’s health and human services department. Google Street View image

Two divisions of Portland’s health and human services department will be consolidated into one location beginning next month in a move that city officials say will help them serve clients more efficiently.

Beginning next month, the city will begin leasing and renovating a 37,000-square-foot building at 39 Forest Ave. for the new home of the health and human services divisions of public health and social services, as well as other department staff.

“I really think this is going to be a huge improvement and it follows along with what we are trying to achieve, which is trying to serve people well in this city in dignified environments, in places they can access and where they can access multiple services without navigating a really difficult path around the city,” Councilor Belinda Ray said prior to the unanimous city council approval May 17. “This can be, to a certain extent, for some people, a one stop shop.”

The Forest Avenue location will be home to the public health clinics and prevention programs the city operates, as well as general assistance, workfare, housing navigation and other social services programming.

The relocation plan had received some pushback from Portland Stage Company, which said it was concerned about its patrons’ safety, and from Maine College of Art, which is building a student dormitory nearby. Dow said there will be a dedicated phone number for neighbors to call with concerns, and that un-uniformed, unarmed staff will monitor safety inside and outside the building.

The leased spaces at 103 India St. and 196 Lancaster St. where the social services and public health programs operate now are cramped and have been plagued with problems with electricity, plumbing and ventilation.

Health and Human Services Director Kristin Dow said the move will also provide space for a new prevention and diversion program aimed at helping people connect with services before a stay at a homeless shelter becomes necessary.

“It’s something we have been looking to do for quite some time,” Dow said.

The goal is be to start renovations next month in time for general assistance to move into the building by July 1. Additional Health and Human Services staff would move to the new space in July and renovations for the public health clinic spaces in the building would take place through October 2021, with clinic operations moving in November.

As part of the agreement with property owner 39 LLC, the city will enter into a 20-year lease beginning June 1. The city will be charged $277,500 a year, or $23,125 rent per month, for the space. The rent would increase by 1% and cap out at $335,250 in 2040-2041, the last year of the lease. The city is currently paying $243,776 in yearly rent for the Lancaster and India street spaces and estimates a $36,400 cost to lease space for the prevention and diversion program.

Councilor Tae Chong said having employees working from one location instead of being spread across five sites across the city will help their “synergy” and result in a more efficient operation.

“At the end of the day, it’s really about making sure our employees are more efficient and they feel like they have the opportunity to serve our clients better,” he said.

The move, Dow said, has the support of the clients the two departments serve. According to a recent survey of participants in Portland Community Free Clinic, STD/HIV clinic and Portland Needle Exchange, close to 85% of the 78 respondents said the new location would be easier for them to access.

At the meeting, the council also decided to not pass on an emergency basis a 180-day moratorium on new homeless shelters in Bayside. The moratorium, will, however, come up for a public hearing and vote at the council’s June 7 meeting. The council is also scheduled June 7 to vote on the proposed $268.2 million city budget for fiscal year 2022, close to $191.6 million of which would come from local tax dollars.

The budget, if passed next month, would increase the tax rate to $23.49 per thousand valuation, an increase of 18 cents, or  .08%, over the current level.

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