Portland’s plan to build a full-service homeless shelter in the Riverton neighborhood hit yet another snag when councilors last week delayed a vote on a committee resolution setting guidelines for the controversial project.
By a 6-2 vote, councilors delayed action on the guidelines at the request of a councilor who questions the city’s responsibility for providing the state’s only municipally run low-barrier emergency homeless shelter without a cap on the number of people served.
Councilor Kimberly Cook was unable to attend the Nov. 18 meeting due to an injury, but sent a message requesting a delay in consideration of a resolution outlining shelter policy guidelines proposed by the Health and Human Services Committee.
Councilor Belinda Ray, chairwoman of the HHS committee, urged the council to pass the resolution that night to move the planning process forward to the design phase. But the council instead voted to take up the matter Dec. 16, with Ray and outgoing Councilor Brian Batson, also a member of the HHS committee, opposed.
Cook on Nov. 22 said the resolution as written simply memorializes the policies in place at the city’s Oxford Street Shelter, which she says are “unsustainable.” She also said she wanted the council to include budget considerations in the policy-setting discussions, and that more communities need to be involved in the conversation about how to respond to homelessness in the region.
“Where we all agree is that people experiencing homelessness need and deserve to have emergency shelter and be offered services,” Cook said. “But where I come apart from Health and Human Services Committee is, what is the city of Portland’s job in this arena?”
The resolution acknowledges that less than 28 percent of the people city shelters are serving come from Portland, while 40 percent come from other municipalities in Maine and 32 percent come from places outside of Maine. But Ray said at the last HHS Committee meeting that legally, the city may not set residency requirements, nor may it prioritize by community. Cook was present at that meeting and requested an executive session at the council meeting or a workshop to go over those legal issues.
As proposed, the resolution would require a larger shelter be built than originally envisioned, to accommodate the average number of homeless people Oxford Street Shelter is serving per night, calculated over the previous 12 months. As of Sept. 30, the average was 210. Although there are efforts to reduce that number, the committee recommends that the shelter be built to meet the city’s current needs.
In addition, the guidelines stipulate there must be adequate space so any needed overflow can be accommodated on site. This is intended to prevent large numbers of people having to pack up all their belongings each morning and travel from remote overflow locations to the new shelter, where meals and other services would be provided.
The guidelines also recommend that the council reconsider setting a cap once the 12-month nightly average is consistently below 200.
Most of the more than 90 minutes of public comment was devoted to opposition to any current or future cap-setting. People who either experienced homelessness or have seen it close up attested to its dangers, not the least of which are frostbite and hypothermia. Some noted that the average was calculated without taking into account those who have been issued Criminal Trespass Orders, and called for the current shelter to reform its “inhumane” policy of issuing them. Others suggested the shelter be built to accommodate the maximum number served at Oxford Street Shelter and its overflow locations. The shelters’ numbers reached 271 in January and February of this year.
But others argued that a shelter 5 miles from downtown would be inappropriate both for the neighborhood and for shelter clients. Some advocated for scattered, smaller shelters throughout the city.
Cook, who represents District 5 – which includes the Riverton neighborhood – said she opposes a “mega-shelter” in any neighborhood.
“There has been a move to say we should have lots of small shelters in Portland,” she said. “I’ve said no, we should have lots of small shelters across the state.
“Because Portland operates a low-barrier shelter with no cap we have become the default emergency shelter for the whole state and beyond,” she continued. “It is not Portland’s responsibility alone to handle this problem, but as long as we commit to handling this for everyone else, everyone else gets to sit on their hands.”
Cook echoed the comments of some homeless advocates when she pointed out that homeless people are often better served in their own communities, where they have other networks of support.
To address these concerns, the proposed resolution calls for the city to continue to work with other municipalities to develop a regional strategy for addressing homelessness.
Tom Bell, spokesman for Greater Portland Council of Governments, said in an email that “there is consensus that the cities and towns around Portland should find ways to help Portland with its homeless population, but the committee has not developed a plan for how to do it.” He said it is on the agenda for discussion at a Metro Regional Coalition meeting Dec. 10.
A new law, meanwhile, may help other cities and towns respond to the needs of those in their communities who are facing homelessness. State Sen. Benjamin Chipman, D-Portland, sponsored the bill signed into law by Gov. Janet Mills in July that defines homelessness as an emergency eligible for General Assistance, allowing the costs municipalities incur in providing hotel vouchers to be partially reimbursed by the state.
The council and city staff are continuing to look into “diversion and prevention” strategies. Shelter staff recently toured Pine Street Inn, a shelter in Boston, to learn about a triage program that results in diversion of nearly 20 percent of the individuals who show up at the shelter each night.
Other councilors at the Nov. 18 meeting were reluctant to delay the vote on the resolution, but felt a workshop would be beneficial. Councilor Jill Duson said she was ready to vote on the resolution that night, because the committee had done a good job of addressing questions that had come up in the process, but she was influenced by the fact that Cook could not be present.
“I feel very optimistic about the new service model,” Duson said. “I feel very optimistic that it will be successful, that we will continue the long-term stayers program, that we will be a partner in addressing the opioid process that is being spearheaded at the state level. We have done a good job in making sure that mental health services and other specialized services are available.
She said there is a scattered network of shelters, some of which will be doing intake and referring people to the city emergency shelter.
“Conversely, we have negotiated agreements to have beds reserved at specialized shelters, for elders with mental health needs for example, so I think we’re moving toward a collaborative mutli-site system,” Duson continued. “We’re clearly committed to the housing-first system and we have the work on the regional collaboration. All those collaborations make me optimistic that this will be successful, therefore we will not have as many people needing emergency services.”
While the City Council will take up the issue again Dec. 16, it could delay discussion until after a workshop that has been scheduled for mid-January.