The South Portland City Council is considering allowing homeless shelters with a maximum of 50 beds each to be built in the city.

The shelters should have bedrooms, rather than a traditional layout of many beds in one big room, councilors said at a workshop Tuesday to discuss zoning amendments that would be required for the shelters.

The zoning changes, which could go to a council vote as early as Feb. 21, are seen as a necessary step in getting hotels in the city out of the sheltering business. A number of hotels have received state and federal funding to act as shelters and have been housing hundreds of homeless people, including asylum seekers. Funding is running out, leaving the city and its taxpayers to foot the bill for housing and services, according to City Manager Scott Morelli.

Councilors and city staff emphasized Tuesday that the city will not be building and operating any shelters. The zoning changes would allow nonprofit organizations or private businesses to undertake those projects.

The focal point of Tuesday’s discussion was the maximum number of beds to allow per shelter, how many shelters should be permitted, and how they should be configured.

Councilors said a maximum of 50 beds per shelter seems appropriate for a city of South Portland’s size, especially if some of the shelters are located in residential zones. Councilor Jocelyn Leighton suggested setting a cap of five shelters in the city if the 50-bed limit is finalized.


The maximum number of beds also aligns with the shelter model councilors would like to see, one with rooms with four to six beds in each.

Councilor Linda Cohen, whose brother was once homeless, said the separate room model is best for the clients.

“When he didn’t want to go to the homeless shelter in Portland, it was because he and his friends were concerned about their belongings being taken away,” Cohen said. “They were very afraid to go into the shelters.”

Other people in need of a shelter are hesitant to go to one because of the violence they may encounter there, she said.

“That’s what makes me lean toward wanting people to have rooms of their own,” she said. “At least there’s some security there, there’s a door there. You go there, whether you’re a single person or couple or family, and you close that door and there’s a little bit of security there.”

Councilor Misha Pride agreed.

“I appreciate especially Councilor Cohen’s statements about privacy and security of having bedrooms for families and not warehousing people in large open, even 50-bed, rooms,” Pride said. “I understand housing is housing and it’s an emergency, but I think we need to make sure people have dignity and privacy because shelters should be more than just a place to sleep.”

In a December workshop on homeless shelters, councilors and city staff drafted requirements for shelters operating in the city, including on-site security, mental health and substance abuse services, translators and transportation.

The Long Creek Youth Development Center on Westbrook Street was repeatedly cited by councilors as a potential location for a shelter with some of the infrastructure already in place. However, because it is on state-owned land, City Manager Scott Morelli said, rezoning the area for a shelter would not necessarily allow for one to be built there.

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