Portland city councilors are set to consider an alternative referendum for the November ballot to compete with a citizen initiative trying to block the city’s planned homeless shelter in Riverton.

The citizen’s referendum, supported by a group called Smaller Shelters for Portland, includes a 50-bed limit for most new shelters. But even though the referendum is retroactive to April, attorneys for the city argue that Portland officials could still replace the Oxford Street shelter with its planned 200-bed shelter in Riverton, provided that the project received Planning Board approval at least 45 days before the election.

Now, Councilor Belinda Ray has submitted an alternative referendum that could appear alongside the citizen-initiated question in November. Ray’s referendum would not limit shelter sizes, but instead would require that shelters be located no less than 1,000 feet apart from one another, among other measures.

Ray’s proposal would also require all emergency shelters to provide access to city buses and to create strategies to help guests use public transit. Her referendum would limit the total bed capacity in emergency shelters to 300 beds in a 1-mile radius, with an exemption for domestic violence shelters that don’t disclose their locations for safety reasons. A proposed consolidation of the Joe Kreisler Teen Shelter and the Preble Street Teen Center into one facility at 343 Cumberland Avenue is also exempt from the buffer and density provisions, according to city documents.

By contrast, the citizen initiative would remove several requirements for shelters, including requirements that they provide access to METRO service and have a plan to help guests use public transit.

Both referendums require that all new emergency shelters be open 24 hours a day and have a policy covering criminal trespass orders.


Ray could not be reached for an interview this weekend. An email auto reply said she was recovering from an injury.

Smaller Shelters for Portland submitted 1,500 signatures earlier this summer to put their proposal on the ballot. At the time, members of the group argued that the city should have a series of smaller shelters to better serve the community — an idea that city officials say is too expensive.

The Portland City Council has a special meeting scheduled for Monday evening at 5 p.m., during which councilors may add the council’s alternative referendum to voters’ options – or not.

The city council has three options when presented with a citizen’s petition like this one: send it to voters alone, send it to voters with an alternative, or adopt it outright. City charter changes through referendum can’t be changed by the council for five years. But councilors during an earlier meeting floated the idea of adopting the amendment themselves, only to immediately change it – a loophole in the time limit for fiddling with referendum initiatives.

During a council meeting in July, Ray said the citizen referendum was “so detrimental” that she was considering that option. But she added that she was “more seriously looking at” giving voters a competing question.

“I have been very clear – I think this is horrible policy,” Ray said at the time.

If city councilors approve Ray’s proposal, voters in November would be given ballots with three options: A, the citizen’s referendum; B, the council’s alternative; and C, neither.

Because of the pandemic, the council is holding meetings remotely. Those wishing to join Monday evening’s special meeting online may find more information at https://townhallstreams.com/towns/portland_maine.

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