The South Portland City Council gave unanimous preliminary approval Tuesday to a measure that would permit homeless shelters to be built in the city.

A final vote is expected March 7, and City Manager Scott Morelli advised the council that there is an “urgent” need for a quick enactment.

Under the plan, businesses or organizations could operate small-scale shelters for up to eight people in any residential area. Shelters for nine to 39 people would be allowed in the Mill Creek area, along parts of Route 1 and in the Maine Mall and airport area. Shelters with a capacity of 100 people would be allowed in the mall and airport areas as well.

State and federal law dictates that the small-scale shelters be treated as single-family homes, similar to recovery residences and group homes.

“This is largely related to the Americans with Disabilities Act, and the folks that are being provided housing in those situations have disabilities,” Assistant City Manager Joshua Reny said.

The 100-capacity maximum was set “after some conversations with public safety and other staff of what could be sort of manageable,” Reny said.


Finding appropriate areas to allow big shelters was key, he said. “It really needs to be in areas that already allow for larger scale development, high-density residential development, health care institutional services, things of that nature.”

Operators of the shelters will be required to provide on-site security and services for mental health, substance abuse, translation and transportation. Easy access to public transportation, such as a nearby bus stop, would suffice for transportation services.

Any medium- or large-scale shelters would be subject to a public hearing before being approved and their licenses must be renewed annually.

“There is a little bit of urgency here to enact this,” City Manager Morelli told the council Tuesday.

Maine Housing set a deadline of Feb. 24 for proposals from nonprofit groups for $21 million in grant money to open homeless shelters and is now reviewing them. In addition, Morelli said, the city is currently working with the owners of hotels that have been operating as shelters to transition them back to their intended uses.

Some South Portland hotels, using state and federal funding, started acting as temporary shelters during the pandemic, when capacity at Portland shelters was reduced because of social distancing requirements. In early 2021, an influx of asylum-seeking people and families arrived in Maine, which created a greater need for hotel shelters.


State and federal funding for the temporary shelters has now run dry, and the ARPA funds the city received during the pandemic are nearly depleted. If the hotels continue to operate as shelters, it will be up to the city, through its General Assistance Fund, to fund them. That added cost would become a burden for taxpayers, Morelli has said.

Under the shelter proposal, hotels would be prohibited from operating as facilities for the unhoused.

“We are updating the definition of lodging establishment to further clarify and really reinforce that current ordinances don’t permit lodging establishments to act as a de facto homeless shelter, or a permanent residence either,” Morelli said.

This story was edited Feb. 27 to correct the status of proposals to Maine Housing.  


The proposed zoning for shelters in South Portland. Contributed / City of South Portland

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