Portland city councilors are facing a decision on the capacity of a new homeless shelter planned for the Riverton neighborhood, a key but sensitive step that is raising questions about the city’s decades-old pledge to shelter anyone in need.
A City Council committee is scheduled to vote Tuesday on a recommended capacity, which the full city council will ultimately determine and city staff will use as they design and prepare to operate the new shelter.
A draft resolution, discussed by the Health & Human Services and Public Safety Committee on Oct. 29, calls for “adequate capacity to handle occasional overflow.” It does not mention any limits on the number of people coming from outside Portland to seek a bed – a controversial restriction that has been discussed previously and could be raised again as the discussion moves to the full council.
In practical terms, the council needs to set a capacity so a new shelter can be designed. However, any attempt to do so could be seen as walking back the city’s 30-year commitment to shelter anyone in need. That commitment has led communities surrounding Portland and beyond to rely on the city’s shelter as safety net.
City officials have talked for many months about building a 150-bed shelter, but that number has not been formally endorsed by the council. At a previous meeting, one councilor suggested setting the capacity higher than the 150 beds, given that the city’s existing adult shelter and overflow spaces have routinely exceeded 200 people a night in recent years.
Another councilor suggested punting the sensitive capacity discussion to the full council.
“We’re going to have to build a shelter with a finite amount of beds,” City Councilor and committee member Brian Batson said at a recent meeting. “Of course, there will be overflow.”
Committee members Batson and Councilor Pious Ali did not respond requests for interviews on Monday. Councilor Belinda Ray, who chairs the committee, said she was not available.
City officials are working on plans to build a new shelter to replace its existing shelter on Oxford Street in Bayside, which they say is outdated and unsafe for both staff and guests.
The existing shelter is a former three-story apartment and attached auto garage, where people sleep on floor mats. It routinely exceeds its 154-person capacity, forcing the city to find overflow space. An additional 75 floor mats are set up at Preble Street and additional space in the city’s general assistance office are also used when needed.
The council voted in June to build a new homeless shelter on Riverside Street, a move that continues to be opposed by area residents and homeless advocates who fear that the new location is too far from services and jobs on the peninsula. Men and women staying at the current shelter also have expressed concerns about the new location and its distance from downtown, even predicting that people will find places to sleep outside rather than travel back and forth to Riverside.
City staff have said they plan to offer a shuttle service to supplement an existing bus route to help clients make it to their appointments.
Unlike the current facility, the new shelter is expected to include a host of onsite services, including a soup kitchen, medical clinic, community police station and areas for counseling. It also will have actual beds, rather than floor mats.
The committee took up a potential capacity limit at its last meeting, but was unable to reach an agreement.
Ali wanted more information about what the city will do when people arrive at the shelter after the cap has been reached before he decides how to vote. He suggested that the committee let the council as a whole set the capacity.
Up until now, city staff has been using informal advice given by the council last year to create a shelter with up to 150 beds, plus space for an additional 25 beds for overflow. But advocates have pointed out that demand for beds already routinely exceeds that amount.
There has been a reduction in the number of adults seeking shelter over the last two years. The average number of people seeking space at the Oxford Street Shelter so far in 2019 has been 208, compared to 216 in 2017. But the demand varies widely, from a high of 271 on two nights in January and February to a low of only 135 beds one night in August.
The slight drop in average nightly use has come as shelter staff have issued more criminal trespass orders to prevent individuals who break rules from returning. The orders, which can prevent someone from using the shelter for up to a year, increased by 50 percent last year, from 84 in 2018 to 126 through early October. However, trespass orders dropped by nearly 28 percent at other community shelters, from 86 to 62.
A breakdown of trespass orders provided to council showed that 43 were issued after an assault on a guest, 19 after an assault on a staff member, 16 issued after a threat to staff and 10 because of hate speech.
City Manager Jon Jennings said Oct. 22 that move is part of its efforts to protect staff from increasingly violent behavior fueled by an increase in methamphetamine use. “It certainly is a much more threatening behavior,” Jennings said.
Batson, a nurse at Maine Medical Center, said he’s seen a rise in aggressive behavior because of meth as well, calling it “a very real thing.”
Officials at the nonprofit social service provider Preble Street did not respond to requests for an interview on Monday about the capacity debate. Donna Yellen, the nonprofit’s deputy director, said at an Oct. 8 committee meeting that there were still periods over the last year when more than 250 people were in the city’s emergency shelter.
Yellen said that one of the reasons Maine regularly has lower rates of unsheltered homeless people when compared to other states is largely because Portland’s commitment to help anyone in need.
“Please, give considerable community process before changing this policy that will absolutely change the face of our city and it will become one that none of us will be proud of,” she said.
Ray, the chair of the council committee, said at the Oct. 29 meeting that setting a capacity at the new shelter would also help the city solicit financial support from the state and from other communities in the region that rely on Portland’s shelter to help residents. She did not think that city staff would ever allow people in need to go without shelter.
“We are everybody’s overflow,” Ray said. “Setting a cap helps to give us leverage to get other people involved in a way we haven’t been able to in the past.”