The COVID pandemic has clearly demonstrated why moving ahead with the building of a 208-bed emergency shelter in Portland is unwise and dangerous. One study (published August 2020 in the Western Journal of Emergency Medicine) of five homeless shelters in Rhode Island, the largest of which sheltered 89 people, found that infection control practices were not enough to control COVID-19 transmission, and that shelters that had more transient residents, and operated at near-full capacity, had higher prevalence rates.

Another study (published Aug. 1 in EClinicalMedicine, The Lancet’s open access clinical journal) noted that, for reasons such as impairment from substance use and serious mental illness, other prevention measures (social distancing, consistently wearing masks) are hard to enforce among people experiencing homelessness.

So, what instead? To start, we should replace the Oxford Street Shelter with smaller, more specialized shelters in Portland and around southern Maine. But ultimately, we need permanent solutions, not just shelters. City Hall’s plan will cost as much as $25 million to build and about $6 million annually to operate but does nothing to provide permanent housing. In particular, we need a significant increase in permanent supportive housing, like Logan Place and Houston Commons, operated by Preble Street. Let’s put our money and our efforts into prevention and diversion programs, smaller specialized shelters, supportive housing options and affordable housing.

Please vote for option A on the Portland ballot and insist that our elected leaders put our funds toward dignified and effective permanent solutions.

Sally Bowden-Schaible

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