The Preble Street Resource Center, at the corner of Oxford and Preble streets in Portland, where a wellness center is proposed to replace the traditional soup kitchen and overflow homeless shelter. (Portland Phoenix/Jim Neuger)
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Good fences supposedly make good neighbors. But for some residents in Portland’s Bayside neighborhood, even a plan that includes fences won’t resolve their complaints about the Preble Street Resource Center.

Sarah Michniewicz, president of the Bayside Neighborhood Association, said residents of the neighborhood bounded by Forest Avenue, Interstate 295, and Congress and Franklin streets are often faced with crime and open drug use and drinking. She said they simply want to be involved in decision making and a conversation about how to improve the area.

But she said Preble Street, which wants to convert from a drop-in resource center, soup kitchen, and overflow shelter to a 40-bed wellness center, has not been a willing partner.

“Most of us understand all the issues and complications, and want to be a part of understanding or a be part of,” she said. “If we can’t be part of the solution, at least we can be supporters of the people that are. In return, we’ve asked to be included in the conversation, because these can be high-impact uses.”

Michniewicz said neighbors historically have not been included in those conversations, and have felt that Preble Street has been disingenuous in how it presents itself to the rest of the city, often denying the impacts or responsibilities they may have for what happens in the neighborhood.

Preble Street Resource Center, Portland
The Portland Street courtyard outside the Preble Street Resource Center will be fenced in under a proposal to convert the building to a 40-bed wellness center. (Portland Phoenix file/Colin Ellis)

“If they could acknowledge it has an impact on the ‘hood, the relationship would have been better,” she said. “But they have the viewpoint, if you have any kind of discomfort, it doesn’t matter, because somebody had it worse.”

Michniewicz said the BNA and people in the neighborhood have received a reputation of being uncaring towards those experiencing homelessness, substance abuse, or mental health crises, which she said is undeserved.

She said neighborhood residents have sympathy for those struggling, but also want to have the place they live to be clean and safe.

“People can interpret what they want, and they can judge our concerns,” she said. “But to my mind, we are all working towards the same solution of having better options, we’re just coming at it from different points of view.”

Preble Street went before the Planning Board Oct. 20 for the first of at least two workshops on its proposal, which was developed during the summer when the resource center was closed in response to the coronavirus pandemic.

City Planner Andrew Tufts told the board the existing building was erected in 2002 specifically as a resource center, but eventually became an overflow shelter for the city’s Oxford Street Shelter – in the form of 75 mats on the floor for the city’s homeless.

Tufts said Preble Street applied for a conditional zoning use to allow the 40-bed wellness center, which will provide cots instead of mats and various services for its clientele, including laundry, showers, and meals. The building’s existing courtyard, which has become an area where people congregate outside on Portland and Preble streets, will be fenced in to create a more private recreation area for those who stay in the shelter.

Ted Kelleher, an attorney from Drummond Woodsum representing Preble Street, said the proposed changes would actually reduce the impact on the neighborhood because there would be “significantly fewer” people and the services provided would be more discrete.

He said if the organization’s application is denied, Preble Street anticipates returning to its historic uses and moving forward “in substantially the same manner as they have historically.”

Kelleher said the soup kitchen typically serves between 200 and 300 people daily. “Anyone knows there are regularly lines,” he said. He later estimated 400-700 people have taken advantage of Preble Street services each day.

“Those numbers have always been all over the map,” Michniewicz said. “Just from the standpoint of being transparent of the impact on the neighborhood, you’d want to know so people could have a grasp. There are all kinds of things that would be informed by reliable numbers, that’s not been clear over the years.”

Kelleher said the new shelter for 40 people is expected to have a “reasonably stable base of people” who stay there, suggesting there wouldn’t be new people every day. There will be a 9 p.m. curfew and a 10 p.m. lights out, he said, to help preserve the quiet nature of the neighborhood. Meals will be prepared on a lower level of the building, and be brought upstairs for clients, and a “broad variety” of social services will be provided.

Kelleher said the smaller number of people requiring services would result not only in fewer clients but also fewer people congregating in the area, and eventually a smaller staff presence, which in turn would reduce traffic and parking demands on the neighborhood.

“I think it’s abundantly clear this will result in lower pedestrian and vehicular traffic,” he said.

Preble Street Executive Director Mark Swann said transforming the center into a 24/7 shelter was “not on our radar screen” before the pandemic, but the organization had to make programming pivots. He noted it operated a 50-bed wellness shelter in partnership with the University of Southern Maine over the summer at the Sullivan Gym, although USM eventually had to reclaim the gym when school resumed.

Swann said Preble Street also opened a 24/7 quarantine shelter outside of Portland, for people who had contracted COVID-19, especially the homeless, people living in group homes, and recent immigrants.

Swann said the organization was strongly advised by health officials not to reopen the resource center, because “opening our doors to hundreds and hundreds” of people every day “simply was not safe.”

“We made the difficult, but smart, decision to provide services in a different way,” he said.

He said although the center became an overflow shelter when the city needed help, there are limitations inherent in how it’s currently configured. Given social distancing needs, he said, it could now only hold 13 people each night, down from the 75 who were previously housed.

“It’s imperative we get this moving,” he said.

Swann said the center has tried to find more space in the past, including recently making an unsuccessful offer on additional property in Portland. Meanwhile, he said there is still an expected shortage of available space for the unsheltered this winter, and Preble Street is trying to help “close the gap.”

“Emergency shelters run well are incredibly important to the public health infrastructure in the community,” Swann said. “They keep individuals safe, but also keep communities safe.”

Michniewicz’s perspective, meanwhile, was echoed by several residents who spoke during a recent Planning Board workshop against Preble Street’s proposal.

Laura Underkuffler, a Bayside resident and lawyer with expertise in land use, said Preble Street’s proposal fails to meet several requirements needed for Planning Board approval. She said there are a “lot of serious problems” with the proposal, but also said the idea the shelter would be appropriate housing for 40 people is wrong.

She said the designs basically only allow for clients to sit on their beds when inside the shelter. Unlike the USM shelter, which had ample space to move around and find recreation, she said the suggestion this shelter would be similar is “unrealistic.”

The Planning Board received hundreds of written comments ahead of its first workshop on the proposal, both for and against the proposal, and not all those who spoke during the workshop sided with Michniewicz.

Christan Sark, who identified herself as a homeless person, said the shelter proposal would help many people. Sark, who said she is 19 and pregnant, said she feels “silenced” by the city when she has previously tried to talk about the issues facing the homeless.

“The people opposing it do not have any experience in it, and are willing to let people suffer in the winter,” Sark said. “… I’m sorry us not getting the services we need is an inconvenience on your day-to-day life.”

Jess Falero, another person experiencing homelessness, said she has utilized the teen center and the Florence House, and said it was important that the city approve this shelter. She said the voices coming from the Bayside neighborhood were spewing “anti-Preble Street and anti-homelessness rhetoric.”

“Please keep 40 people from sleeping outside,” she said.

City Councilor Belinda Ray, whose district includes Bayside, said it is important for the Planning Board to consider Preble Street’s management plan. She said there is adequate shelter housing in the city, so the board has time to do its homework.

“It’s not equitable to place every bed in one small radius,” Ray said, referring to the number of shelters in Bayside. “That’s been happening for several years now, and it has not had the desired effect.”

Michniewicz admitted Bayside has historically been a service center, and said residents know what they are getting into when they move there. But she said there’s been a falling out and lack of responsibility taken by Preble Street. She said problems like crime, noise, trash, and drugs won’t go away simply because the center becomes a shelter.

She said she hopes the city denies Preble Street’s application outright, but also that Preble Street becomes a better neighbor. At the least, she said, the neighborhood wants Preble Street to develop a management plan that is vetted by the Police Department.

“There’s a narrative that we want people out of the neighborhood,” Michniewicz said. “And we don’t.”