Portland Councilors voted 6-3 in support of a 180-day moratorium on new emergency shelters in Bayside, where many of the social services and homeless shelters have been concentrated in recent decades.

The moratorium is intended to give the council time to finish drafting and present for approval a new annual licensing program for emergency shelters in the city. It does not affect existing shelters or services. A new 40-bed shelter being built by Preble Street will still move forward.

However, people experiencing homelessness and service providers said the proposal would add barriers to creating safe shelter at a time it’s needed most.

The Health & Human Services and Public Safety Committee is expected to hold a second public hearing on its licensing proposal Tuesday. The licensing program could limit the number of shelter beds within a certain radius and outline other standards, among other things.

City Councilor Belinda Ray, who serves on the committee, predicted that the moratorium could be lifted in about 60 days, once the council votes on the licensing program.

The nonprofit social services agency Preble Street mobilized its supporters to oppose the moratorium. And councilors said they received over 100 emails in opposition. However, those emails were not posted online and councilors said they contained misinformation, such as saying city is looking to close down shelters or reduce services.

City Councilor Tae Chong, who leads the HHS committee, stressed that the proposal would not affect any existing shelters or services. It would only prevent new shelters from opening or existing shelters from expanding. And it would only apply to Bayside, which is only a small portion of the peninsula.

“You can build low-barrier emergency shelters in other parts of the peninsula. We are in no way shutting down any shelters,” Chong said. “I’ve spent more time trying to fend off misinformation than talking about policy. I wish we could talk more about policy.”

City Councilors Andrew Zarro, April Fournier and Pious Ali voted against the moratorium. Fournier said the moratorium centered on the wrong population – namely the housed – and Ali said it wasn’t necessary, since there are no pending applications. And Zarro, meanwhile, said the proposal was contrary to the council’s goal of addressing homelessness.

The proposal comes after Preble Street received approvals to build a new 40-person shelter at 5 Portland St., which was used as a day shelter serving hundreds of people daily before, but closed amid the pandemic. Neighborhood residents are concerned about Preble Street’s previously stated plan to build new shelters in the neighborhood, though the agency says those plans are no longer feasible, given the lessons of the pandemic.

It also comes as the city is moving forward with a plan to build a 200-bed homeless services center on Riverside Street, even as a group of residents is collecting signatures for a citizen referendum to block it.

A majority of the 15 or so people who spoke at the public hearing opposed the moratorium, including representatives of Preble Street and it’s Homeless Voices for Justice advocacy program.

John Wray, 60, said he relies on shelters and services in Bayside. He worried about how he would continue to access services, if they were removed from the neighborhood, even though the moratorium would not affect existing services.

“Look at it from our point of view – everything is right where need it,” Wray said. “If you move us, then what do we do?”

Rebecca Hobbs, the director of Through These Doors, a domestic violence shelter, said she read the moratorium with “disappointment and even indignation” because it characterizes a concentration of low-income people, people of color, and people struggling with mental health and substance use issues as a problem.

Frank D’Alessandro, the litigation and policy director of Maine Equal Justice, said the proposal is discriminatory, because it seeks to prevent people of protected class from living in a specific part of the city.

However, Ray, the councilor, pushed back. “It is not right that we continue to put people with the fewest resources in the highest crime neighborhood in this city,” she said.

City Councilor Mark Dion said he remains committed to addressing the needs of people experiencing homelessness, while also addressing concerns of neighborhood residents by enacting a moratorium.

“I don’t think there’s any conflict in my mind that both can be accomplished,” Dion said. “This idea that our committee is proposing a moratorium that is somehow attacking the homeless unhoused and marginalized is simply wrong.”

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