Unhoused people and advocates for the homeless gathered in Portland’s Monument Square to demand housing for all on Sunday, which was World Homeless Day in 2021.

Proponents of the “smaller shelters” ballot initiative, which would limit the size of homeless shelters around the city, were behind the event, and gave out food, hot drinks and winter clothes. Organizers Carolyn Silvius and Justin Beth encouraged attendees to vote “A” on Question A this fall, restricting most new shelters to 50 beds and removing requirements that they have day beds and access to public transit.

The smaller-shelters initiative has drawn support from Riverton-area residents and business owners resistant to the city’s plans to build a 208-bed shelter there. But some people who are, or have been, homeless also back the ballot question.

A handful of activists, supporters and unhoused people march down Congress Street toward Monument Square as a part of a days worth of events commemorating World Homeless Day on Sunday. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Jess Falero was homeless for six years in Maine before finding permanent housing about nine months ago. At Sunday’s event, Falero, who uses they/them pronouns, said they associated larger shelters with danger, telling a story about coming home one night to Florence House on Valley Street.

About 40 people were sleeping on metal cots in a single room, they said, and around 9 p.m. one of the guests had a mental episode and began screaming. It started a chain reaction. Other people woke up and complained to the staff, who seemed unable to calm the person, Falero said. The situation turned violent, and the police showed up.

“The next thing we know, we’ve got someone bleeding from the head on the floor and there are four cop cars outside,” Falero said.


They added later, “Warehousing people like we warehouse cattle is a bad idea. Why don’t we have smaller shelters, adequate resources, and adequate people who care?”

The Portland Planning Board on Sept. 14 approved a 208-bed shelter at 638 Riverside St., replacing the outdated Oxford Street shelter. Members of Safer Shelters for Portland and Smaller Shelters for Portland have threatened to sue over the city’s approval of the project, arguing that city staff are incorrect in saying that the shelter referendum can’t retroactively block the Riverton shelter project.

A handful of activists, supporters and unhoused people march down Congress Street toward Monument Square as a part of a days worth of events commemorating World Homeless Day on Sunday Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

City attorneys say state land use law prohibits referenda from blocking projects that have been approved at least 45 days before an election. By issuing final approval on Sept. 14, the city says, the Riverton shelter project can’t be blocked by referendum.

The City Council also has advanced an alternative change to city regulations that would mandate security at shelters and a minimum distance between shelters, but not the maximum size limit supported by the “smaller shelters” group. The council’s proposal will appear as option “B” on Question A, and voters may also simply vote “no” to keep the existing language in place.

Proponents of the Riverton shelter project say that blocking the larger shelter and starting from scratch could mean years of delay for a community that’s already desperately in need of help.

Portland is experiencing an increased need for services during the pandemic, which has forced people outdoors and scattered them through the city with less regular access to services. City officials recently offered $260,000 to any social services agency willing to open a day shelter for people who don’t have somewhere to go indoors, but received no formal responses. That increases the likelihood that unhoused people in Portland will go another winter without daytime shelter.

Nonprofit Preble Street closed its Bayside-area day shelter at the onset of the pandemic, as did other common meeting places such as the Portland Public Library. The city of Portland’s Oxford Street shelter is open 24 hours, but only to those who are staying there and in good standing with the facility.

Before meeting in Monument Square on Sunday, attendees of the rally marched down Congress Street from Longfellow Square with shopping carts to spread awareness of homelessness. They carried signs such as “Smaller Shelters = Safer Shelters,” and chanted, “We want housing – not warehousing.”

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