Josh Pobrislo, South Portland health officer, firefighter and paramedic, spearheaded Project Outreach to help the homeless sheltered at hotels in the city, including the Days Inn by the Maine Mall. Drew Johnson / The Forecaster

Reggie Humphrey puts out his cigarette, takes a sip of his coffee, and sits down at a picnic table outside the Days Inn in South Portland on a cold January morning.

“Where I was living, I was a few weeks behind on my rent,” he said.

So the police picked him up when he was evicted in October 2021 and took him to Oxford Street shelter in Portland.

“I spent just a few nights there, which was hell,” said Humphrey, 65. “Sleeping on a cot right next to somebody else on a cot in a big dormitory-style room.”

Humphrey was then sent to Days Inn, a South Portland hotel hosting much of the overflow from Oxford Street shelter.

The Days Inn, like 16 other South Portland motels and hotels, is housing homeless people and asylum-seekers. Four of the hotels – Howard Johnsons, Comfort Inn, Quality Inn and Days Inn – are completely filled with those needing shelter, while the 13 other hotels and motels are pitching in on “a smaller scale,” according to City Manager Scott Morelli. He estimates there are 800 people currently being housed in hotels in the city.


South Portland has been hit hard by the region’s homeless crisis. It’s taken a toll on its emergency services, put a strain on the city’s budget and spawned complaints from residents and businesses near the hotels-turned-shelters. For two years, the city has been treading water — it can provide temporary shelters in its hotels and meet other needs, but can’t attack the problems at its root causes, such as affordable housing.

Compounding the problem, Project Outreach, a South Portland Fire Department initiative to provide health care and other services to those sheltered in the hotels since the start of the pandemic, ran out of funding and came to an end in January. Two of the hotels housing 290 homeless people will no longer provide rooms for them as of May 31.

Dozens of homeless people, refugees and asylum-seekers sought help from South Portland’s Project Outreach, which ended in January. Services were offered two days a week. Contributed / Josh Pobrislo


“When COVID started to hit Maine in March of 2020, sheltering restrictions were put in place to keep folks in those settings socially distanced so there wouldn’t be any large outbreaks,” Morelli said in an interview with The Forecaster. “As a result, a lot of the sheltered clients who would have otherwise been in a Portland shelter started to be placed into South Portland hotels.”

Then, by the beginning of 2021, the city saw an influx in the number of new refugees and asylum-seekers, part of a surge coming mostly from the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Angola to the United States.

The Days Inn and Comfort Inn by the Maine Mall have been sheltering domestic homeless individuals while the Quality Inn and Howard Johnsons on Main Street are primarily housing asylum-seeking families.


“Obviously, there’s a housing crisis, there’s not room at any of the shelters, so those individuals also ended up being placed in area hotels, many in South Portland,” Morelli said. “So, you had kind of the convergence of two different events, on top of an already tight housing market, that has really led to this crunch.”

That convergence has taken a toll on the city’s safety services, he said, with an increase in 911 calls coming from and about the hotels.

From 2017 to 2019, there was an average of 1,025 emergency calls to the hotels per year. That number rose to 3,049 in 2021, a 198% increase.

The Comfort Inn saw an average of 40 calls from 2017-19, but was the source of 873 calls in 2021.

The number of calls to the Days Inn, which saw an average of 107 calls from 2017 to 2019, more than quadrupled to 512 in 2021. Calls to Howard Johnson rose from 82 to 303, and the Quality Inn from 63 to 358. However, calls have recently decreased by 25% at the Quality Inn, which is exclusively housing asylum-seeking and refugee families.

The 13 other hotels that are chipping in at a smaller scale have seen a 37% uptick in calls, from an average of 733 from 2017-19 to 1,003 in 2021.


The call numbers provided are exclusively from the hotels and do not include those from neighboring residences and businesses.

“We ended up seeing just a skyrocketing number of calls to our police and fire personnel,” Morelli said. “Some legitimate medical emergencies, others were calls that could have been avoided if there were adequate health services being provided.”

Complaints and concerns among residents and businesses include people standing in traffic, banging on cars, threatening residents and customers at businesses, and trespassing, according to Morelli.

There has also been an increase in thefts.

“In some cases there were thefts going on at neighboring businesses for food,” he said. “Individuals were saying they were hungry and didn’t have access to food.”

The South Portland Police Department is setting up a satellite office on Main Street, near Howard Johnson and the Quality Inn and other smaller hotels hosting the unhoused, in large part because of the increase in calls. The office is set to open by the end of March.


Project Outreach provided vital services, such as health care, to those being sheltered at South Portland hotels. Contributed / Josh Pobrislo


South Portland started Project Outreach at the onset of the pandemic in 2020, using a $100,000 Community Block Development grant.

“The objective under the grant was to inform and educate as many citizens and individuals residing within the city of South Portland as possible about COVID,” said Josh Pobrislo, a South Portland local health officer, firefighter and paramedic who pioneered the program.

“In doing that project, we began to take a census of some of our more vulnerable populations and the contractibility rate among those vulnerable populations,” Pobrislo said.

The census showed that the vulnerable population, which includes domestic homeless, refugees and asylum-seeking individuals, had a high transmission rate for the coronavirus.

Project Outreach soon evolved to connect those sheltering at the hotels to crucial services, such as health care.


Humphrey, the man staying at the Days Inn, said he hasn’t availed himself of Project Outreach services.

“There isn’t that much I need,” he said. “I know there’s health care available if anything’s wrong … so that’s a good feeling, knowing that if something’s wrong I’m not gonna lay in my room, moan and groan, and drop dead.”

“That is not my case,” he continued. “But I know there have been some, a couple since I’ve been here. They were drug addicts; they were still doing it, and they go to do room check and opened the door, and there they go.”

Humphrey says he is a recovering alcoholic who doesn’t use any other substances. He’s been sober since being evicted in October and said he has no intention of falling back into that hole. He credits Pobrislo for helping him stay sober, saying “he dragged me out of the gutter.”

When he transitioned from Oxford Street shelter to the Days Inn, Pobrislo took him to JC Penny to get clothes, Humphrey said, adding that Pobrislo is well respected by those he has helped.

During its evolution from pandemic response to connecting the city’s vulnerable population to services, Project Outreach held events every Tuesday and Thursday, rotating between four hotels. Other people not staying at the hotels also have sought help from Project Outreach.


“One woman and her older son, who is no longer a minor, had unfortunately received trespassing orders and were not allowed to stay at any of the hotels,” Pobrislo said. “So, they’re sleeping outside and they did come and seek us out for some advice and just emotional support.”

With help from the city of Portland and social service providers, South Portland has been able to provide services such as food, clothing, transportation, health care and translators. However, there is not an endless supply of money.

“The funding for a lot of these things may dry up as soon as June of this year because that’s as far as FEMA has offered to cover the cost for a lot of these things,” Morelli said. “If that happens, our contingency plan is that we’ve applied to the county to utilize some of their ARPA funds to help to continue to provide some of these services.”

The city is also considering using some of its own American Rescue Plan Act funding, Morelli said, but he believes there are other funding sources available.

“There’s dollars out there and there are agencies out there that can provide all of the things that these individuals need,” he said. “It’s just a matter of needing to better coordinate and put the money towards it.”

Project Outreach’s funds ran dry at the end of January. Pobrislo said he chose not to apply for more funding because participation from fire department staff  “started to dwindle off” and “it was getting tough” to keep the outreach going with limited personnel.


Preble Street in Portland will continue to provide services at the hotels, including supplying bulk personal care items, said Deputy Director Donna Yellen.

Preble Street is also launching a case management program at the Comfort Inn in South Portland.

“We’re in the process of staffing up,” said Executive Director Mark Swann said. “It probably wouldn’t be a 24-7 staffing model … kind of a 9-5 case management, social work.”

The new, 208-bed shelter planned for Portland will help ease the pressure, but Morelli says it may take another 10 months before it opens. And, he said, it won’t be big enough to house the 800 people now residing in South Portland alone. 

“You’re still talking about several hundred people that don’t have a place to stay,” he said. “There will continue to be a need for this. It’ll be on a lesser scale, but I’m not sure there’s an end where there’s no clients in a hotel anywhere, as of yet.”

While these hotels have become crucial temporary shelters, they are just that – temporary. NewGen Hospitality Management, which operates the Comfort Inn and Days Inn in South Portland, announced last month that they will no longer provide rooms for their 290 homeless tenants as of May 31.


“If it closes, that’s a lot of disassociated people out on the street,” Humphrey said.

But the hotel stays are not a long-term solution.

“I think the big elephant in the room is housing itself,” Pobrislo said. “We’re just bottlenecking with these Band-Aid fixes of hotels. We ultimately need affordable housing; that’s a big issue, and there isn’t enough affordable housing available and affordable housing isn’t getting built fast enough.”

Though Project Outreach has reached its end, Pobrislo doesn’t plan to stop helping.

“I see myself looking for a way to do something in the future,” he said.

In fact, just a day after Project Outreach had officially ended, he continued to help. Before heading out from Days Inn that January morning, a hotel tenant told Pobrislo he had a medical prescription ready. Pobrislo gave him a ride to the pharmacy.

“There really isn’t anyone else who does this for us,” the tenant said.

Humphrey hopes to have his own residence someday, but is still trying to get back up on his feet.

“I need to be ready for that.”

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