Volunteers Michael Fox, left, and Sean Ahern on Monday, Aug. 10, in the Preble Street soup kitchen, which fed hundreds of people a day before the coronavirus pandemic forced the agency to revise the way it provides services to Portland's homeless. (Portland Phoenix/Jim Neuger)
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Everything about Portland’s Preble Street Resource Center seems different now.

The usually bustling hallways and kitchens are quieter, with fewer people coming and going. And the sidewalks and streetscape of Oxford and Portland streets, usually a hub of activity as people wait to get into the center, are nearly deserted.

These are the effects of the coronavirus pandemic. In the course of just six months, a center that was a magnet for the city’s homeless population has grown eerily vacant.

But the need the organization serves still exists, Preble Street Deputy Director Donna Yellen said in a Monday morning interview in the largely empty halls.

Donna Yellen, deputy director of Preble Street, in the pantry on Aug. 10: “The number of families seeking food assistance has gone up tremendously.” (Portland Phoenix/Jim Neuger)

“The number of families seeking food assistance has gone up tremendously,” Yellen said.

Because of the pandemic, Preble Street officials decided to change how they operated. They permanently closed the soup kitchen and shifted to a mobile food system that makes deliveries around the city – a decision that led to a clash with the city, particularly over deliveries to the city’s homeless residents.

Several city officials, city councilors, and City Manager Jon Jennings have said it was Preble Street’s decision to close its soup kitchen that led to an increase in the number of homeless people camping in Deering Oaks Park and to a weeks-long protest on City Hall Plaza.

Officials have claimed the encampments became unruly, with widespread drug use and assaults, after Preble Street suddenly transitioned away from its soup kitchen model. During last week’s City Council meeting, Health and Human Services Director Kristen Dow said she asked Preble Street to keep its day services open, but the organization refused.

Jennings has said on more than one occasion that the city played no role in Preble Street’s closing, that they are their own entity. And City officials largely neglected Preble Street’s claim that the closing was based on guidance from state health officials. 

Yellen said the suggestion that Preble Street is unilaterally responsible for the Deering Oaks and City Hall encampments is a misconception.

“We work hand in glove with the city,” she said. “We’re in meetings with Health and Human Services to look at starting up meal sites outside for unsheltered folks. But we have concerns about bringing people together again.”

The concern about bringing people together into larger groups comes directly from the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, Yellen said. It was the Maine CDC that advised Preble Street to close its indoor operations and transition away from what is known as congregate dining.

Prior to the pandemic, Preble Street had the state’s largest soup kitchen, serving people three times a day, every day of the year.

“It was all kinds of people from all kinds of walks of life,” Yellen said.

Initially, the state’s guidance was to allow no more than 50 people into the dining room at a time, taking extra precautions to avoid any contamination. However, after consultants from the CDC and infectious disease experts from other health organizations toured the building, their diagnosis was dire.

“Early on they told us it’s a disaster waiting to happen,” Yellen said.

She said Preble Street looked at similar programs around the country and saw those groups were making the same decision to move away from congregate dining.

To address that, Yellen said they decided to feed people where they are, which she said studies have shown to be an effective model. That’s not an issue when delivering to shelters where people are staying, and those with housing can come to the pantry and take away food.

“It’s the unsheltered we were very, very concerned about,” she said.

So Preble Street began meeting people where they were. And that’s where the misconception about Deering Oaks and City Hall started, Yellen said. The notion that because Preble Street started delivering to the park is the reason the city’s homeless began congregating there is completely flawed, she said.

Dan D’Ippolito, Preble Street community engagement director: “It’s only a matter of time before there’s another situation.” (Portland Phoenix/Jim Neuger)

“It’s not because we’re feeding hungry people,” Yellen said.

Yellen, who started at Preble Street as an intern 26 years ago, said people in the city have been staying outside for a long time, long before Preble Street began mobile delivery, so there is no merit to the notion that Preble Street opened the gates.

But she said the agency has now stopped delivering to the park at the city’s request, and because the city said it required a permit. Preble Street continues to provide outreach, Yellen said, and has met with people staying in the park to see what would be the best way to ensure they get food.

Yellen also said the park and City Hall are visibly public places, so people have noticed the city’s homeless population more. But people historically have lined up outside Preble Street, she said, and those crowds have only grown, which was not good for trying to fight the pandemic. She said Preble Street would like to see people be able to spread out, be socially distant, and still get their meals.

Yellen said the food programs at Preble Street always came with social work. Pre-pandemic that was much easier, since social workers could meet with people as they were coming into the building. It’s more difficult now, but still part of Preble Street’s mission.

“We’re now practicing social work without walls,” Yellen said.

She said the network of volunteers and staff is even more important since those workers have built relationships with the city’s homeless over the years.

Yellen said Preble Street still considers the city a partner and has weekly calls with city officials and the CDC about health concerns. And she said the prognosis isn’t optimistic.

“The CDC is warning us about the fall,” she said. “They think it’s going to be worse.”

With that in mind, she said Preble Street delivers meals to nine sites around the city, including shelters. She said the issue continues to be getting meals to the city’s homeless who are not sheltered in any way and are often the population dealing most with mental health and substance abuse issues.

Yellen said the unsheltered are a growing population, with many people electing not to use the city’s shelters. City staff has said these shelters, including the Portland Exposition Building, are only at about 50 percent capacity. The city also shelters people in motels around the city as possible.

“That’s why people are outside,” Yellen said. “Not because of where they get their food.”

Those experiencing unsheltered homelessness often experience several other health risks than others, Yellen said. She said people who are unsheltered often die 25 years earlier than people who have shelter.

“Everything we’ve done is in pursuit of keeping people safe,” Yellen said.

Dan D’Ippolito, Preble Street’s community engagement director, said the service Preble Street provides has grown tremendously in the past year, increasing to 85 percent of capacity. He said the agency serves 100,000 meals a month.

Yellen said meal deliveries are made twice a day, morning and afternoon, and are larger and meant to last longer. She said the lesson Preble Street has learned from programs around the country is smaller shelters and smaller groups of people who are spread out are the best way to operate during the pandemic.

“We’re flexible, where people’s needs are, that’s what we do,” she said.

These deliveries also require extensive volunteer effort. Last week alone, Preble Street delivered more than 1,000 meals to unsheltered homeless individuals.

The Preble Street Resource Center, at the corner of Oxford and Preble streets in Portland, where a wellness shelter will eventually replace the traditional soup kitchen. (Portland Phoenix/Jim Neuger)

At the same time, Preble Street is in the process of transforming the space that was the day shelter into a wellness shelter, which will have 40 beds and only be available to those staying there. It will create an open place where beds are 8 feet apart and help fill the void left by the Sullivan Gym at the University of Southern Maine, which had been used as a wellness shelter throughout the spring and summer.

Yellen said there are several housing initiatives Preble Street is working on with partner agencies, including a quarantine shelter in partnership with the city to make sure people who have tested positive for COVID-19 have a place to get well; a veterans housing program with the Veterans Administration, and a new healing center for victims of human trafficking.

“We can’t address all the problems by ourselves, we need partners,” Yellen said.

Turning the resource center into a less-crowded wellness shelter is the right option, Yellen and D’Ippolito said, to provide the right safety protocols and best serve that population. D’Ippolito said it will become a safe place that is secure for those staying there.

“We’re learning from the pandemic how to better serve people,” he said. “A wellness shelter may seem like a simple idea, to give them space, but it’s much better to meet their goals.”

COVID-19 has proved how important a role shelters play, he added. “It’s only a matter of time before there’s another situation,” D’Ippolito said.

Yellen said Preble Street remains concerned about the second wave of the pandemic the CDC has predicted, especially as restrictions on housing evictions have lapsed.

“We’re afraid for the working poor,” she said. “We’re really worried about increased homelessness.”

At the end of the day, she said, Preble Street is trying to address systemic changes.

“This is an opportunity for change,” she said, “and an opportunity for those who struggle to have change.”

While the pandemic has changed the lives of everyone, Yellen said, those experiencing homelessness have had to struggle the most.

“We’re all doing our best,” she said. “But people deserve better, and we think we know how to do it.”

An earlier version of this story incorrectly described Preble Street’s intention to create a wellness shelter as a plan for a wellness “center.”