Portland voters on Tuesday defeated a citizen initiative meant to limit the size of most new homeless shelters to 50 beds.

The measure, drafted by Smaller Shelters for Portland, needed to earn a majority of the vote to take effect, according to the city. But the proposal received only 31 percent of the vote.

The unofficial result means the city likely will be able to move forward with its plan to build a 208-bed homeless services center in Riverton, which officials say could be opened by next winter, without an expected legal battle.

Smaller Shelters for Portland conceded defeat late Tuesday night.

“The voters have spoken and our effort for smaller shelters did not prevail,” the group said in a statement. “We continue to believe that the City’s approach is the wrong path forward and we will continue to advocate for permanent and dignified solutions for our unhoused neighbors. As we have said, shelters do not solve homelessness, housing solves homelessness. We hope our City leaders will refocus their efforts on addressing the housing crisis so that people experiencing homelessness have a permanent place to call home.”

Portland voters on Tuesday had to decide on competing referendums that would restrict the size and location of most new homeless shelters.


Option A, put forward by Smaller Shelters for Portland, would have limited the size of most new shelters to 50 beds, while Option B, proposed by the City Council, would have set a 150-bed limit for a single shelter, required that all shelters have day space and allowed for no more than 300 shelter beds within a one-mile radius. Voters also could choose Option C, or none of the above, which would preserve the status quo.

The city said that Option A or B would have needed to secure more than 50 percent of the vote to take effect, but neither reached that threshold.

Option C (none of the above) came out on top with 8,092 votes (or 41 percent), followed by Option A with 6,183 (31 percent) and Option B with 5,428 (27.5 percent).

Nearly 31 percent of the city’s 62,780 registered voters cast ballots in the election, including 6,245 people who voted absentee, a respectable showing for an off-year election. While there were no state or federal races, voters were drawn to the polls to decide three statewide referendums, including a question about Central Maine Power’s controversial transmission line.

Option A was designed to block the city’s newly approved shelter in the Riverton neighborhood from moving forward. Smaller Shelters for Portland gave it a retroactive date of April 20, hoping to make the 50-bed limit apply to the planned service center at 654 Riverside St. City attorneys argued that state law insulated the city’s project, since it was approved by the planning board at least 45 days before the election. If Option A had won, the dispute likely would have ended up in court.

On Monday, on the eve of the election, councilors approved the new shelter’s ground and building leases with the Developers Collaborative, which plans to build the $25 million facility and lease it back to the city. The homeless services center is slated to have, in addition to up to 208 beds, a soup kitchen, a medical clinic, a day room, a private outdoor area and space where community service providers can meet with clients to try to get them housed.


Through Oct. 11, Portland Cares, a ballot question committee organized by the shelter developer, had raised $40,000 for its campaign urging people to vote for Option C. That sum dwarfed the  $5,000 raised by Smaller Shelters for Portland to promote Option A.

Kevin Bunker, a principal at Developers Collaborative, which is building the shelter, said he was pleased that residents voted convincingly in favor of allowing the city’s homeless services center project to move forward.

“We’re definitely looking forward to continuing the design process and making this the best homeless services center we can, and getting it built as fast as we can,” Bunker said. “There are a lot of people out there who need it. And a big thank you to the voters of Portland for standing up for them.”

Tuesday’s vote marks the culmination of years of debate over how to replace Oxford Street Shelter, a low-barrier shelter for single adults run by the city. Prior to the pandemic, the shelter could accommodate 154 people on thin foam floor mats. But with the coronavirus, capacity was cut in half, based on recommendations by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Hotel rooms have been used to meet the demand for emergency shelter, which has grown to roughly 350 single adults and 500 people in families staying in city shelters and hotels.

The city has been laying the groundwork to replace the shelter with a single facility since 2016, when it opened up more zones for shelters, which were previously confined to downtown. Zoning now allows shelters in business and industrial zones.

The city council pursued a centralized shelter with wraparound services because councilors believed it was a national best practice and more cost efficient than a network of smaller shelters.


A 2015 task force concluded that a scattered site model would be more expensive to operate. According to estimates at the time from the nonprofit social services provider Preble Street, a consolidated shelter would cost about $2.7 million to operate, while having five scattered sites would cost about $4.6 million.

City staff revised those estimates upward in 2018, concluding that a centralized shelter with 200 beds would cost $4.7 million to operate, while five shelters with 40 beds each would cost about $10 million to operate.

Service providers, such as Amistad, Shalom House, Spurwink, Milestone Recovery and Through These Doors, urged residents to support the city’s shelter proposal, saying it would allow them to better serve people experiencing homelessness, who currently have to seek out a variety of services spread out downtown. They said they did not have the staff or resources to provide services at multiple different sites and  questioned the political viability of getting new shelters through the permitting process. They argued that any delay in building a new shelter would directly harm people who are sleeping outside.

Advocates for Option A, however, pressed on, saying their proposal was built with input from people who have lived on the streets. They contended that neighborhoods would not fight smaller specialty shelters that would better serve clients. They envisioned other communities in Greater Portland also building shelters to meet the need – a longtime and elusive goal of the city’s.

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