Portland recently offered nearly $260,000 to any social service agency willing to open a day shelter for people who are homeless and do not have a place to go indoors.

Nobody responded. And the lack of options is increasing the likelihood that vulnerable people will spend another winter without a dry place to warm up, use the bathroom, receive mail or connect to service providers.

The city has been without a day shelter since the social service nonprofit Preble Street closed its facility at the onset of the pandemic last year. And other buildings, such as the Portland Public Library, have been closed to the public.

On Friday, dozens of people gathered in Deering Oaks or along nearby Oxford Street, trying to dry out sleeping bags drenched by rain the night before. Some lamented the lack of any space where they can shower or meet with caseworkers. One man said that, after 18 months outside, he’s gotten used to it.

Aaron Geyer, the city’s social services director, said several area agencies inquired about the request but did not apply because they could not find a physical location to operate the day shelter. He declined to name them.

“They kicked the tires on a couple different places and it just didn’t work out,” Geyer said. “I just think we will continue to do the best we can and provide the services in a similar manner that we have and build upon the partnerships we have built upon throughout the years.”

Preble Street had operated a day shelter in Bayside for more than 40 years before closing it at the onset of the coronavirus pandemic. The agency had struggled to accommodate the increasing numbers at the resource center – some 400 people or more a day. The agency began scaling back hours in 2018 because of financial pressures.

The city contributed about $100,000 a year to fund the shelter and soup kitchen, a city spokesperson said.

Preble Street is in the process of converting the former day shelter at 5 Portland St. into a 24-hour shelter, built to accommodate 40 people. It also closed its soup kitchen to indoor dining during the pandemic and began providing to-go meals at various locations in the city.

Preble Street Executive Director Mark Swann was out of the office last week. And Melanie McKean, the agency’s development director, said no one would be available on Thursday or Friday to provide an update about the new 24-hour shelter, or discuss outreach efforts to people who are experiencing homelessness but not accessing shelter, either by choice or because they have been issued a criminal trespass order for breaking rules.

The closure of Preble Street’s space led many people who relied on the day shelter to find other areas to spend their time, most notably in Deering Oaks. And trash associated with the to-go meals has become a neighborhood nuisance.

The city-run Oxford Street Shelter is open 24 hours a day, but only people who are staying there and in good standing can access that space.

An unknown number of homeless people in Portland avoid the shelter for various reasons or are banned for breaking rules. At night, some of those people couch-surf or find hidden spots to camp outdoors. They are not allowed to stay in Deering Oaks or other parks overnight.

The city’s request for day shelter proposals noted the loss of local service centers and programming, including the shift from a traditional soup kitchen to mobile food distribution. It says the mobile food distribution has “created a challenge for the community,” since people have nowhere to sit down and eat the meals.

“The lack of day space for those experiencing homelessness, with a reliable connection to local social service providers, is a critical gap in services that the City of Portland is looking to remedy,” the proposal states.

City Hall spokesperson Jessica Grondin said the city does not have the capacity to create and operate a separate day shelter. She noted Portland is one of the few cities of its size to operate an overnight shelter for single adults, as well as other shelters for families and a nursing and rehabilitation center.

The city is also working on building a new 200-bed homeless services center on Riverside Street to replace its aging Oxford Street Shelter, although a citizen referendum seeks to derail that project. The proposed new shelter, which underwent its first planning review last week, will have beds instead of floor mats. It will also have an onsite soup kitchen, day room and outdoor space for people staying there, a medical clinic and counseling rooms where social service providers can meet with clients.

“There are things the city already does that other cities do not,” Grondin said. 

The city offered $257,950 in federal CARES Act funding for the day space.

Lee Richardson smokes a cigarette on the Deering Oaks bandstand during a rain shower on Friday. Richardson, who has been homeless since January, is among Portland’s homeless population who could face another winter without a day shelter. “If they take away the day shelter, they should start providing hotels,” he said. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

After a night of heavy rain, 24-year-old Eva Montgomery was among a group of a dozen people in Deering Oaks on Friday morning.

She was hanging clothing and blankets, drenched from the overnight rain, on a rope strung between the trees to dry them out. In previous years, she would have been able to use the Resource Center to wash her clothes, take a shower and use the restroom, among other things. But that is no longer an option.

Montgomery said she chooses to sleep outside, instead of at the city’s Oxford Street Shelter, because she’s not allowed to store her belongings there.

“I haven’t showered in a couple weeks because there’s no place to (expletive) do it,” she said. “I feel disgusting. It’s also making me severely defeated and killing my self-confidence, because I’m transgender. I can’t shave or do anything I need to do to feel good in my own body. It’s really (expletive) with my head. I can’t do it much longer.”

A few blocks up the road on Oxford Street, across from Preble Street’s former soup kitchen, about two dozen people were sitting on the sidewalk, with sleeping bags and other items hanging over a chain-link fence. A steady stream of people moved in and out of a portable toilet nearby, with the sound of the door slamming in between use.

A married couple who would give only their first names, Kim and Damion, said they have been sleeping on the sidewalk under an awning of Preble Street’s building, because they are not allowed to stay together at the city-run shelter. They were among those drying out their sleeping bags in the morning sun.

“I haven’t been inside a building in over a year and a half,” Damion, 33, said. “You get used to it. I’ve adapted.”

Kim, 51, said sleeping outside during the heavy rain was “awful,” but at least she was with her husband. She said there is huge need for a day space, where people can spend time, get basic hygiene products, do laundry, receive mail and perhaps get connected with services.

“That would be awesome,” Montgomery said. “We used go in there, sit down and relax, and be with our people. Use the phone. Use the internet. And talk to our caseworkers. But all I hear is that they’re changing everything.”

Michele Arcand, an outreach worker at Preble Street, said she and the outreach team have been busy lately. She distributes mail that’s still sent to the resource center for people on the streets and staying in the city shelter. The team does its best to connect people to EBT cards, Social Security, housing vouchers and other services, but it’s more difficult, she said.

“There’s more and more people with needs in Portland, but the resources are fading,” said Arcand, adding that she’s speaking from her own experiences as an outreach worker and not for Preble Street. “People need services.”

As she spoke, a woman seated on a chair on the sidewalk began to vomit on herself and Arcand wondered aloud where that woman would be able to clean her clothes and take a shower.

Brian Townsend, executive director of Amistad, a nonprofit that serves people with mental illness, said he had early discussions with Milestone Recovery, a nonprofit that provides emergency shelter and treatment for people with substance use disorder, about collaborating on a proposal for a new day shelter.

Townsend said they were looking for a facility that would serve at least 200 people, but couldn’t find a suitable location.

“Our teams are very aware of the need for it and the value of it,” Townsend said. “There are not a lot of properties suitable for that because of the way they’re constructed and COVID certainly made it more challenging and volatile that way.”

When the Resource Center closed, people experiencing homelessness congregated in Deering Oaks. This summer, however, fewer people are doing that.

Townsend said that makes outreach more difficult, since more people are camping throughout the city, or are staying in hotels – an arrangement that could end this fall when state money dries up.

“It’s kind of gone from bad to another form of bad,” Townsend said. “It’s harder when it’s more dispersed. We have limited resources and we can’t be everywhere at once.”

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