How is it that every other shelter provider in Maine is providing effective services and shelter with an average size of only 30 beds? Yet we are being told that the only way Portland can provide these services is by paying a private developer nearly $40 million (inclusive of financing) to build the largest shelter north of Boston on the outskirts of town. This just doesn’t add up.

As a starting point, we need to remember that shelters don’t solve homelessness – housing solves homelessness. Let’s also remember that Portland offers shelter to all who need it. People who are sleeping outside have either been barred by city staff or choose not to utilize Portland’s shelter for a variety of reasons. City Hall’s plan to build a 208-bed shelter on Riverside Street will not change this reality, nor will it provide a single unit of housing.

The Smaller Shelters ballot question (Option A) was drafted by people who have experienced homelessness, advocates for the unhoused and residents across our city together with input from shelter providers in Portland. Option A will limit new single adult shelters to 50 beds and requires all shelters to operate 24 hours/day with adequate space for all shelter functions, including meals and other daytime operations.  The initiative also removes certain requirements, such as site lines and proximity to METRO, that are not universally applicable for all types of emergency shelters (e.g., domestic violence or family shelters). However, this in no way precludes these design elements from new shelters where they are good practice.

Since the City Council narrowly voted (5-4) in 2019 to site a 200-bed shelter on Riverside Street, the COVID-19 pandemic has changed our world. Shelter providers like Preble Street and Hope House in Bangor have run smaller, temporary shelters and shelters in hotels, which has changed their view of how best to provide shelter. Mark Swann, Preble Street’s executive director, said that operating the 50-bed shelter at the University of Southern Maine gym “taught the organization a valuable lesson – that smaller, 24-hour shelters are a better model than large shelters.” Josh D’Alessio, director of Hope House, a low-barrier Bangor shelter, said, “Congregate living is as passe as Hammer pants … The approach is way wrong.”

Yet, we keep hearing the tired mantra: “It’s this shelter, or nothing.” This is a scare tactic that shows a lack of political will to engage our community in positive, long-term solutions. Mayor Kate Snyder, who opposed the Riverside Street location during her 2019 campaign, and the City Council need to engage in true collaboration with nonprofits like Preble Street, our legislative delegation in Augusta (a majority of whom recently opposed the Riverside Street shelter) and nearby municipalities to provide a coordinated system of prevention, shelter and housing. Voting for Option A will force City Hall to move forward with realistic and comprehensive alternatives.

These alternatives are right in front of us. Under Option A, here is how we can quickly provide better shelter and services while ensuring funds are left to provide housing:

• Build a new 50-bed shelter on Riverside Street, along with permanent supportive housing there or on other city-owned land.

• Renovate the Oxford Street Shelter or another existing building nearby to provide 50 beds (numerous vacant commercial properties are for lease or sale on the market today).

• Support Preble Street, which is converting its Resource Center to a 40-bed shelter and has plans for a new 30-bed women’s shelter in the Portland area.

• Fully implement the city’s prevention and diversion program. City staff have touted this program for years as having the ability to prevent 20 percent of people from needing shelter by supporting them to stay housed. The State Homeless System Re-design Initiative suggests a 40 percent reduction is possible.

• Continue to use hotel rooms for those who are circumstantially homeless for a brief period.

Please join us in voting for Option A. Vote to support smaller shelters and better outcomes.


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