Portland is poised to build a 208-bed homeless shelter offering multiple supportive services in the Riverton neighborhood — a project years in the making. But this fall, city residents can weigh in on whether they think it’s the right approach, and their votes could pressure, or possibly even force, the city to revise its plans.

Voters will be offered two choices to limit the size and location for new homeless shelters – one drafted by a group of residents and another drafted by the City Council – or can opt for none of the above. A proposal will need a majority of votes to take effect, rather than a plurality, as the city previously stated.

Smaller Shelters for Portland has put forward a citywide referendum to restrict the size of most new shelters to 50 beds. The group made its proposal retroactive to April 20 to try to shrink the size of the Riverton shelter, which some also criticize as being too far from key downtown services.

City attorneys have stated their belief that the referendum cannot force a change in the Riverton plan, since the new shelter was approved more than 45 days before the election, outside the time limit that state laws allows retroactive laws to reach back. An attorney representing citizens behind referendum, however, has pushed back on that assertion and threatened legal action.

Kim Cook, a former city councilor who is part of Smaller Shelters for Portland, said that passage of Option A is residents’ best chance to reduce the size of the city shelter. If it prevails, she hopes city officials will choose to scale down its facility rather than argue in court about whether they are legally required to comply.

“It can only get litigated if the city council decides to go to court against its own people,” Cook said. “The city council always has the option to listen to the will of the voters. They’re the decision makers.”

She said she also hopes the city will work with community, state and regional partners to address shelter needs statewide to ease the pressure on Portland – an effort that so far has failed to yield any tangible results.

Mayor Kate Snyder is urging voters to reject Option A on the grounds that the need to replace the Oxford Street shelter is urgent. Just about everyone agrees, she says, that the current shelter falls short both for those it houses and its staff. Right now, the Riverton shelter is the only option on the table.

“I’d hate to see progress stalled on the homeless services center,” Snyder said. “I think that slowing down or stopping progress doesn’t help the people we’re trying to serve.”

The plan for the new shelter came about to address the inadequacy of the current one. The Oxford Street Shelter in Bayside is an old apartment building and garage that wasn’t designed to be a shelter. It can serve up to 154 people, but has had to go down to 75 during the pandemic. Meanwhile, the average nightly count of single adults seeking emergency shelter was 194 in September, according to city staff.

The new center, aside from being able to house more people, would have raised beds for them to sleep on, instead of Oxford Street’s thin floor mats. It would also include a medical clinic, soup kitchen, day room and meeting space so community service providers can meet privately with clients, all features the current shelter lacks.

The Planning Board approved the plan for the Riverton shelter last month. But the effort to replace Oxford Street with a single new shelter started years ago, after a 2015 task force concluded that a scattered site model would be more expensive to operate. According to estimates from the nonprofit social services provider Preble Street at the time, a consolidated shelter would cost about $2.7 million to operate, while having five scattered sites would cost about $4.6 million.

City staff revisited those estimates upward in 2018, concluding that a centralized shelter with 200 beds would cost $4.7 million to operate, while five scattered site shelters with 40 beds each would cost about $10 million to operate. City officials said this week that those estimates are still accurate.

On the Nov. 2 ballot, Portland voters will be given three choices for regulating the size and location of future homeless shelters in Maine’s largest city. Two of the options would restrict the size and locations of new shelters, while the third option would maintain the rules already in place.

In addition to imposing a 50-bed limit on emergency shelters, a limit that would not apply to domestic violence or family shelters, Option A would  remove current requirements that shelters provide “adequate access” to public transportation routes, have dedicated day spaces for residents and areas set aside for security searches as well as clear sight lines from administrative offices into sleeping areas. But it would add requirements that new shelters be open 24 hours a day and provide services either in person or through videoconferencing. And it would require a policy and appeals process for the issuance of criminal trespass orders, which can prohibit people who break the rules from accessing the shelter.

Cook said the requirements being removed only make sense for larger congregate care-style shelters.

City councilors, meanwhile, have offered their own option to compete with the citizen initiative – something that’s unusual but allowed under the city ordinance.

Their Option B would limit the overall capacity of new emergency shelters to 150 beds in an individual facility, unless the council declares a shelter capacity emergency. Capacity could only be increased if the council could demonstrate a shortage of shelter beds at both public and privately operated shelters.

The council amendment would also incorporate other rules and licensing standards that have been under consideration by its Health & Human Services and Public Safety Committee. They include requiring shelters to have policies regarding the issuance of criminal trespass orders and to implement strategies to help residents use public transit. Option B also would require emergency shelters to be located at least 1,000 feet from each another and would prohibit more than 300 shelter beds from being located within a 1 mile radius.

Option B makes it clear that it would not apply to the Riverton project. If approved, it would become effective in 30 days.

Voters will be asked whether they support Option A, as proposed by citizen petition; Option B, as enacted by the city council; or if both those options “should both be rejected as provided in C.” A majority of votes cast would be needed for any new rules to take effect, the city stated on Tuesday, reversing an earlier opinion that the question with the most votes would win.

If either Option A or Option B passes, the council will not be able to make any changes to the rules for five years, except through another citywide referendum.

Smaller Shelters for Portland is the only Ballot Question Committee registered at City Hall for the referendum. From July 1 through Sept. 30, the group had raised $2,676, – including $1,000 from the firm that manages Terrance Ponds apartments, which is located on Riverside Street near the prosed shelter site – and had $102 remaining.

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