There is a lot on which we agree with the backers of Portland’s “smaller shelters” referendum – especially when they say homeless shelters are not the solution to homelessness. Housing is.

But that’s why we can’t support their plan, which would put the brakes on a Planning Board-approved homeless service center on Riverside Street, and start what could be a years-long-process in the hopes of building more, small shelters.

A referendum that passes complicated policy that can’t be changed for five years would slow down progress when we should be moving faster. It would tie the City Council’s hands just before it gets three new members. And it would not address what the smaller-shelter advocates say are the underlying causes of homelessness.

Maine has a statewide shortage of affordable housing, which is causing a concentration of unhoused people in Portland because that’s where the services are. If those people need mental health or substance use services they can quickly spiral into crisis because those systems are overwhelmed.

We need more affordable housing, more supportive housing, better public health and mental health services, and that will be true no matter which side wins the election on Tuesday. Unless there is progress on those fronts, even a 200-bed shelter could turn out to be too small.

Question 1 is an overly complicated question, where voters are presented three options. Option A presents a list of shelter regulations, including a 50-bed cap on capacity that would effectively kill the 200-bed shelter plan. Option B, the City Council-approved alternative measure, passes different regulations including a 150-bed cap on shelters.


The city is planning to build a 200-bed homeless services center on Riverside Street despite a citizen referendum seeking to block it. Rendering courtesy Developers Collaborative

We support Option C, which would leave the ordinance unchanged.

The proposed homeless service center on Riverside Street would replace the city’s current shelter on Oxford Street, a dilapidated house that before COVID restrictions was used to hold up to 150 people a night, who slept on thin foam floor mats.

The new facility would be big enough to let people sleep in beds instead of on mats, and would provide food, lockers, day shelter, health care and social services on site, instead of forcing clients to navigate the city.

Proponents of Options A acknowledge that replacing the Oxford Street shelter with a modern building would be an improvement over the status quo. But they say it would not be good enough.

They envision a system of smaller shelters in Portland and other places in the region. They say that the city and partner nonprofits could provide the same services in multiple locations and they would be more successful.

But they don’t have a plan to pay for these new shelters, or to explain where the city and nonprofits would hire the extra staff that would be needed to run them.


And most importantly, they have an over-optimistic view of how long it would take to approve multiple new homeless shelters in multiple neighborhoods.

It took three years to get the homeless service center to this point and there was opposition every step of the way. Starting over with a new planning process could take years.

We don’t approve of what’s happening now with homelessness in the city, and we don’t approve of all the choices that previous councils and staff have made in recent years. But we can’t approve taking a step back in the face of this mounting crisis.

Homeless shelters won’t end homelessness. The city should move on from the shelter debate and focus on the the things that will.

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