They drafted a citizen initiative. They hired an attorney. But a group of Riverton residents who had hoped to block the city’s plans to build a large homeless services center in their neighborhood say they are not planning any additional legal action to delay or derail the 208-bed shelter after their initiative lost at the polls.

Stephanie Neuts, a member of Portlanders for Safer Shelters, said in a written statement that her group continues to disagree with the city’s plans for a “megashelter” and would like to see the shelter’s capacity reduced from 208 beds to 125. But the group will no longer try to block the project.

“Portlanders for Safer Shelters will not be pursuing any legal action to stop the shelter,” Neuts said. “We had the opportunity to take legal action but wanted this vote to be from the people, not become a legal nightmare. We will pursue working with the new (council) to best help the unhoused and local impacts.”

On Nov. 2, the group, as part of a broader campaign coalition called Smaller Shelters for Portland, asked Portland voters to limit the size of most new shelters to 50 beds, a limit that would have been retroactive to try to change the city’s plans. But that proposition got only 31 percent  of the vote. Now Portlanders for Safer Shelters is calling on the city to focus on housing, rather than sheltering, people experiencing homelessness.

Mayor Kate Snyder said that’s exactly what the City Council has been doing, while also planning the new shelter. She said the city is not a housing developer or a landlord – it can only foster favorable conditions for affordable housing to be created. She said she plans to focus on housing efforts, not only in Portland but also regionally, during her State of the City address, which she will deliver before the end of the year.

Sheltering people, Snyder said, is “not a zero sum game.” The city’s shelter project, smaller specialized shelters run by nonprofits and affordable housing all are needed. City officials, she said, do not believe an emergency shelter is a solution to homelessness, but they know it is needed to “meet an urgent need that we see every day.”

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“The intent of an emergency homeless services center is not to house people; it’s to get them the services they need to move out of the situation of emergency shelter being needed,” she said. “For so many reasons, it’s the right thing to do.”

The plan for the new shelter, which will serve men and women, was driven by the inadequacy of the current one. The Oxford Street Shelter in Bayside is an old, three-story apartment building and garage that wasn’t designed for its current use. It can serve up to 154 people, but has had to go down to 75 during the pandemic.

The need, however, has not gone down. Last month, city officials said they are now serving 850 individuals in city-run shelters and hotels, including 343 single adults and 507 individuals in families, about 90 percent of whom are seeking asylum. And an unknown number of people are sleeping on the streets, in tents or vehicles, rather than accessing the emergency shelter.

The new center also will do far more than shelter more people. It will have raised beds for them to sleep on, instead of Oxford Street’s thin floor mats, and lockers where people can safely store their belongings. It will also include a health care clinic, soup kitchen, day room, needle exchange, and meeting space so community service providers can meet privately with clients, all features the current shelter lacks. The health clinic will provide mental health care, substance use treatment and dental services, according to planning documents.

The city has named 16 community organizations that plan to offer services and outreach at the new center in addition to those provided by the city and state. They include Preble Street, Catholic Charities of Maine, Frannie Peabody Center, Greater Portland Health, Milestone Recovery, The Opportunity Alliance and Through These Doors.

The project has already been approved by the Planning Board and the City Council just approved ground and building leases for the new facility.

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The ground lease caps the overall construction costs at $25 million. The Developers Collaborative will cover the costs of construction and lease the facility back to the city for $2.7 million annually for the first 10 years. After that, the annual lease cost will drop to $307,500, with a 2.5 percent increase each year until it hits nearly $434,500 in year 25, when the city will be able purchase the facility for $1.

City officials have estimated that the new homeless services center’s annual operations costs will be about $4.7 million.

The team developing the shelter, which includes the nonprofit social services provider Amistad, is eager to move forward.

Amistad Executive Director Brian Townsend said he was “thrilled and relieved” with the election results. He said Amistad will begin planning more meetings with people who are currently experiencing homelessness to receive additional input on the design and services. He held such meetings to get input on the center’s exterior design and plans to do the same for the interior.

Amistad, which also is opening a small shelter on State Street to serve women who have been recently incarcerated, are struggling with substance use or were trafficking victims, will also work with other service providers to get feedback on design and best practices, Townsend said.

The design of the new city shelter, he said, needs to be “authentically and meaningfully informed by the people who will be utilizing that space.”

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Kevin Bunker, a principal at Developers Collaborative, which is also developing Amistad’s State Street shelter, said a consultant also is collecting design and service recommendations from city staff. He said the shelter is about halfway through the design process, which has been complicated by the passage of the Green New Deal for Portland last year. That referendum added at least $800,000 in costs and required complex energy modeling to show energy savings, he said.

Bunker hopes to file permit applications by the end of the year, with the aim of breaking ground in February, a timeline that should allow the shelter to open by late 2022 or early 2023.

“February doesn’t feel pie in the sky at all,” Bunker said. “It still feels reasonable at this point.”

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 against the small shelter referendum. That sum dwarfed the $5,000 raised by Smaller Shelters for Portland to promote Option A.

But that was then, Bunker said. Now he hopes to work with his former opponents.

“Even if it’s gotten very adversarial, I’ve always tried to do right by neighborhoods,” he said. “My door is still open. I hope they will be involved on a neighborhood basis so we can work together in making it as good as it can be. I’m doing this because I think it’s the right thing.”

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