Kristen Dow, Portland’s outgoing health and human services director, says she is proud of the work she’s done for the city over the last 18 years. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

After 18 years with the city of Portland, Director of Health and Human Services Kristen Dow will step down on Friday to take a job with a national consulting firm.

Her departure comes as the city continues to grapple with a homelessness crisis, something Dow said she has worked hard to address during her tenure.

The Health and Human Services Department operates a number of crucial services for the city including General Assistance, the needle exchange, the Barron Center, and the distribution of disability and Social Security benefits.

Dow submitted her resignation in late October. She started off as a program manager in the public health department and was appointed director of Health and Human Services by former City Manager Jon Jennings in June 2019 after several months of serving as interim director following Dawn Stiles’ resignation.

Since taking the helm, she has played a major role in getting the Homeless Services Center up and running, facilitating an emergency shelter for asylum seekers at the Expo Center, mitigating the spread of COVID-19 in Portland, and spearheading the Encampment Crisis Response Team.

Dow regularly appears at City Council meetings to offer advice on a variety of issues. That advice has largely focused on homelessness and the encampment team in recent months. She encouraged the council to temporarily add capacity at the shelter and fought efforts to temporarily halt encampment sweeps.


She admits there is still a long way to go, but thinks the political polarization around some of the city’s major social issues sometimes slows progress down.

“I think the biggest obstacle we face is this narrative of us versus them,” said Dow. “I hope we can get rid of that idea that there’s some malice in what people are doing, and instead have open and honest conversations because once you break down that, then you can accomplish anything together. At the end of the day we all want the same thing, we want to help our community.”

Dow said feels good about the work she’s done for the city.

“I’m proud of the work that we’ve done, especially in bringing together community partners and our government. We can accomplish so much more when we work together like this,” said Dow.

Last spring, when the city was grappling with how to address the growing homelessness crisis, Dow spent a long weekend researching what other cities had done to deal with their own homelessness crises, she said. That research is ultimately what led to the ECRT. Although the team has had mixed success, Dow said it is still in its early stages and it has been effective in opening lines of communication between social service organizations and the city.

Aaron Geyer, Portland’s director of social services, said Dow’s willingness to collaborate is a big reason she has been successful.


He pointed to her work leading the ECRT and her focus on moving all the city’s major social services, including General Assistance and the free public health clinic, into one building.

“Now, someone who needs to get GA and then maybe a medication, they can do it all in the same place instead of having to run all over the city,” said Geyer. “The co-location of services is huge and she always looks at things through that lens of bringing people together.”

Dow said that her work with the city has been rewarding and in her view, Portland has come a long way in offering better services to the people who need them.

Kristen Dow, the head of Health and Human Services for Portland, talks to staff outside of the expo as they begin the process of moving asylum seekers from the Expo on to busses that will take them to hotels in Lewiston and Freeport on August 16. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

“I don’t ever want us to be afraid to be the first to do something,” said Dow, who says some of her most effective ideas have been outside the box.

City Manager Danielle West is responsible for finding Dow’s replacement and recommending them to the City Council.

“It’s going to be very, very difficult. She has very large shoes to fill,” said West.


She has worked for the city almost as long as Dow.

“I’ve really enjoyed working with her, she’s very calm and cool under pressure,” West said. “She’s very smart and really looks at issues from the 5,000-foot view so we can understand them as best we can.”

West said the city is casting a wide net and hopes to find a candidate who can be a strong leader, communicate well with the council, and come up with creative ideas.

All are qualities Dow said are important to succeed in the role. West has posted the job, which pays between $125,857 and $159,460. The city hopes to fill the position as quickly as possible, but West said she is committed to finding the right person for the job, even if that takes a little extra time. The city has named Deputy Director Shaza Stevenson as interim director of the department.

Dow has high hopes for the city. She plans to stay in Topsham, where she lives with her family, even as she steps into her new role with a national consulting firm. She declined to talk in detail about her new post or reasons for wanting to leave her work with the city but said she wants to see Portland succeed.

“I think a lot about the advice that I give my daughters: to be kind to one another, to be bold, and to always be a person who wants to see those around you be successful. If we look at the work that we do through those lenses we can accomplish a lot,” said Dow.

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