The parents returned to their budget hotel room in South Portland with medical instructions intended to make their sick child feel better.

But they were asylum seekers who understood little English, and they didn’t have ready access to an interpreter. So instead of irrigating the child’s nasal passages with saline, a mixture of water and salt, they used rubbing alcohol. Then they called for paramedics.

“They were definitely upset and confused,” said Robb Couture, South Portland’s EMS coordinator. “They obviously didn’t want to hurt their child, but they misunderstood written directions they got at the hospital.”

The child survived the ordeal, Couture said. Still, South Portland officials and others point to the incident as a frightening and avoidable example of problems that have increased along with the homeless population in and around Portland since the COVID-19 pandemic started in March 2020.

More than 1,000 homeless people, including asylum seekers coming from the southern U.S border, are staying in emergency shelters and hotel rooms in Greater Portland. Untold others are living in cars, tents and other “unhoused” circumstances. And the challenges that come with being homeless – lack of access to food and health care, calls for police and emergency medical services, among others – are on the rise, too.

The escalation has spurred a call from communities around the region to help Portland shoulder a responsibility that many have long believed should not rest solely on Maine’s largest city. It’s a major turnaround for Portland, which for nearly 35 years has operated an emergency shelter where two-thirds to three-quarters of nonimmigrant clients have come from other cities and towns.

Portland has repeatedly sought additional funding and other assistance from state and federal sources to fortify its strained General Assistance budget, often getting pushback or scalding rebukes. In 2015, former Gov. Paul LePage, a Republican, cut state funding to Portland’s shelters as part of broader welfare reforms. In 2018, when the city started billing other municipalities for shelter services provided to their former residents, some balked at the prospect of sharing the cost. Portland had to reach out for help again in 2019, when hundreds of asylum seekers from central African countries began arriving from the southern border – an influx that hasn’t stopped.

The push from surrounding communities for a more regional approach is bolstered by the availability $57.3 million in federal funding that has been allocated to Cumberland County through the American Rescue Plan Act. Pressure is mounting on county commissioners to dedicate at least $10 million of that ARPA funding to homeless initiatives in Portland, South Portland, Brunswick and the Lakes Region.

“This is truly a county issue,” Westbrook Mayor Michael Foley said during this month’s Metro Regional Coalition meeting. “Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem like the commissioners are willing to do that as quickly as we would hope.”

The coalition is a 20-member working group, within the Greater Portland Council of Governments, that is made up of elected officials and municipal managers from Portland, South Portland, Westbrook, Falmouth, Gorham, Scarborough and Cape Elizabeth.

“We should have a county homelessness department and they would deal with this issue going forward,” Foley said. “As elected officials, we should collectively work together in pressuring that in the long term.”

Coalition members unanimously agreed to send letters to the five county commissioners, asking them to approve Portland and South Portland’s requests for ARPA funding. Portland has asked for $5 million to help build a planned $25 million, 208-bed homeless shelter and service center at 654 Riverside St., on the outskirts of the city; and South Portland has asked for for $1 million to help provide health care, language interpreting and security services at four hotels where Portland has been housing hundreds of shelter clients since the pandemic began.

“The rising tide of people suffering homelessness is a top (coalition) priority,” Amy Kuhn, chair of the coalition and the Falmouth Town Council, wrote in a Nov. 17 letter to the commissioners.

“(Coalition) members see homelessness as a regional issue that should be addressed comprehensively across the greater Portland area,” Kuhn wrote. “For some time, the (coalition) has looked for regional solutions that spread the costs of providing shelter and services to those suffering homelessness.”

Josh Pobrislo, South Portland’s local health officer, left, and Reggie Humphrey embrace outside Days Inn in South Portland, where Humphrey lives. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Kuhn urged the commissioners to fund each city’s request, saying that the additional ARPA money “will provide regional support to help solve a regional problem. We hope this is one step in a continuing effort to advance regional resources to ease the crisis of homelessness facing our region.”

Other major homeless initiatives that are seeking county ARPA funding include Tedford Housing’s request for $3 million to help build a $7 million, 64-bed emergency shelter for adults and families near Cook’s Corner in Brunswick. Tedford intends to contribute $4 million raised through a capital campaign and the sale of existing shelter space that is outdated and inadequate, according to its application. The agency served 38 adults and 15 families in fiscal 2021, but it turned away 321 adults and 83 families with 98 children because it lacked shelter space.

Tedford also has applied for ARPA funding to conduct a feasibility study, in partnership with the county, that would explore the need for an emergency shelter, transitional housing and other services for homeless residents in the Lakes Region, an area northwest of Portland that includes Windham, Standish, Raymond, Casco, Sebago, Naples, Frye Island, Bridgton and Harrison.

“Yes, the county is going to respond to these requests,” said Steve Gorden, chairman of the commissioners. “I think COVID has caused us to step back and say, ‘Wait a minute, maybe we can approach some of these issues in a more regional way and have a better, more affordable result.’ ”

But Gorden bristled at the idea that county government is positioned to take over homeless services as it did municipal courts and jails in the past, as Foley suggested. By law, Gorden said, the county doesn’t have access to welfare funding typically used to provide housing and other services to homeless people.

“It’s not that we don’t want to (address homelessness),” Gorden said. “It is an issue that should be handled regionally, but not necessarily by the county.”

The county’s contribution to the solution will be limited at the outset. In the first round of funding, county officials are offering only $11 million of the $57.3 million ARPA allocation for competitive programs and projects, said spokesperson Travis Kennedy.

The county has received 101 applications totaling $88 million in funding requests, Kennedy said, including more than a dozen for programs targeting homelessness and nearly 20 for affordable housing projects. A public review committee will score the applications and the first round of funding will be awarded by spring 2022.

The county has received only $28.7 million of its ARPA allocation so far, and commissioners plan to spend most of it to upgrade the county jail, courthouse and civic center and to increase jail staffing, Kennedy said. The federal government is expected to release the remaining $28.7 million sometime after May 2022, and the bulk of that money is expected to go to competitive projects, he said.

Portland’s homeless shelter proposal depends on the county approving its $5 million ARPA funding request as soon as possible, city officials said. The project survived a referendum challenge Nov. 2 that was brought by residents who opposed what some called a “megashelter.”

The Developers Collaborative will build the new shelter and lease the facility to the city. The ground lease for the project caps overall construction costs at $25 million. The lease will cost the city $2.7 million annually for the first 10 years, then the payment will drop to $307,500 and increase 2.5 percent annually to $434,500 in year 25, when the city will be able purchase the facility for $1.

In addition to $32 million in future lease payments, Portland is kicking in $3.5 million from its own $46.3 million ARPA allocation. City officials estimate that the new homeless shelter and services center will open by early 2023 and cost about $4.7 million to operate each year.

Portland Mayor Kate Snyder stands on Oxford Street in the Bayside neighborhood, the current hub for homeless services in the city. Officials hope a new shelter in Riverton can open by early 2023. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Portland Mayor Kate Snyder said the $5 million in county ARPA funding is critical to the new shelter project. She was happy to hear the outpouring of support at the regional coalition’s recent meeting.

“It was wonderful to hear that support,” Snyder said. “We really are relying on county funding to get this project done.”

In addition to having beds, the new shelter also will have a medical clinic, a soup kitchen and gathering space. It will replace the Oxford Street Shelter, an old, three-story apartment building and garage in Portland’s Bayside neighborhood. It can serve up to 154 people sleeping on mats, but its capacity has been reduced to 75 during the pandemic.

Meanwhile, the need for emergency shelter and homeless services continues to rise.

From October to November, the number of people staying in Portland’s city-run shelters and area hotels increased from 850 to 953, according to Jessica Grondin, city spokesperson. The number of single adults housed during that period increased from 343 to 418, and the number of individuals in families – 90 percent of whom are seeking asylum – increased from 507 to 535.

A recent census of shelter clients staying in South Portland hotels counted 136 single adults at the Days Inn, 461 Maine Mall Road; with families occupying 75 rooms at the Comfort Inn, 90 Maine Mall Road; 90 rooms at the Quality Inn, 738 Main St.; and two rooms at the Howard Johnson hotel, 675 Main St.

With hundreds of people largely isolated in four South Portland hotels and lacking access to adequate food, health care and other services, calls for police and firefighter-paramedics have skyrocketed, said City Manager Scott Morelli.

Calls for service to the four hotels quadrupled in 2020 over the previous three-year average, from 292 to 1,158, Morelli said. Calls in 2021 had already reached 1,877 by the end of October, rising from a previous average of about one call to nearly six calls per day. That doesn’t include calls from businesses and residents about indigent shelter clients involved in thefts, fights, harassment, assaults and other crimes, especially in the Maine Mall area, Morelli said.

To help reduce police and EMS calls, Morelli met with hotel owners last month and urged them to take steps to reduce calls or risk losing their operating licenses. This month, Portland officials and service agencies began developing a plan to provide additional services that also may help reduce calls to the South Portland hotels.

But Morelli has a lot of hope pinned on the request for $1 million in county ARPA funding, which would help establish a $2 million program to provide health care, language interpreting and security services at the four hotels. South Portland would contribute $250,000 of its own $10.5 million ARPA allocation, and Portland, MaineHousing and the motels would share the remaining $750,000 cost, according to the funding application.

“Since the start of the pandemic, we’ve been building the airplane as we flew it,” Morelli said. “Our hotels stepped up and filled a need.”

But many shelter clients living in the hotels “are not receiving the physical (and) mental health, substance use, language interpretation, food, and other social services that they need,” Morelli said in his ARPA application to the county.

If the proposed program is funded, each hotel would be staffed with a health care professional during the day and a private security officer from noon to 1 a.m. A language interpreter also would be available daily to assist asylum-seeking families among the four hotels.

“This combination of service providers will also help us to reduce the calls on South Portland’s overly stressed public safety personnel and the impact that the associated criminal activity has had on abutting residences and businesses,” Morelli wrote in the ARPA application. “While this is not a brick-and-mortar solution, it is in fact a necessary solution to provide missing assistance to hundreds of
families/individuals in need while working toward ensuring they find permanent housing.”

Morelli anticipates the program would run through 2022, after which Portland anticipates opening its new homeless shelter with wraparound services. But with hundreds of people housed in South Portland hotels, it’s unclear whether the planned 208-bed shelter will be large enough if the number of homeless clients in the Portland area remains high or increases.

“That’s not going to stop after the shelter is built,” said Falmouth Town Manager Nathan Poore. “If there (are) 400 to 600 people in need of (transitional housing), it doesn’t exist.”

The growing challenge of homelessness in southern Maine has become apparent in mostly wealthy Falmouth, Poore said during this month’s Metro Regional Coalition meeting. People who are living in their cars sometimes stay in Walmart’s parking lot, he said, and low-income tenants occasionally open their homes to transients.

“It will start finding its way to (other) communities that don’t think they have a problem,” Poore said.

Josh Pobrislo, South Portland’s local health officer, helps a homeless man fill out paperwork for a COVID-19 vaccine. The city hopes to get new federal money to expand resources for its homeless population. Pobrislo leads a grant-funded outreach group of the city’s firefighter-paramedics who have been trying to meet the needs of those sheltered in the hotels. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

With that in mind, some believe South Portland’s hotels will continue to house shelter clients for an indefinite period. The service program that Morelli has proposed would build on an outreach effort started last year by a group of South Portland firefighter-paramedics who have been trying to meet the needs of those being sheltered in the hotels.

The paramedics’ outreach effort is funded by a community development block grant and is run by Josh Pobrislo, the local health officer and community care paramedic. The group works out of an 18-foot-long, custom-built trailer that’s equipped with an exam room where COVID-19 vaccines are administered and a supply closet filled with toiletries, blankets, food and other basic supplies.

“There’s no judgment,” said Reggie Humphrey, 65, a client at the Days Inn who looks forward to conversations with Pobrislo, who is always encouraging. Humphrey credited the outreach group with helping him stay sober for 21 days.

The outreach trailer visits each hotel every other week, delivering compassion and hope as much as anything else. Pobrislo coordinates with other agencies that provide some services. But it’s not enough.

“We’re not social workers,” Pobrislo said. “We’re just hustling. We’re catching people who have fallen through the cracks. The need is so great.”

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