The city’s new 208-bed homeless services center is slated to open toward the end of March, according to the project’s developer.
Kevin Bunker, a principal at the firm Developers Collaborative who are building the center at 654 Riverside St., told the Phoenix that everything was “right on schedule” for a certificate of occupancy to be issued on March 10. After that, the building is turned over to the city of Portland to outfit the building with beds and other amenities.
Bunker said he believed the city’s plan was to open the week of March 20. Jessica Grondin, the city’s spokesperson, said that the city was eyeing a “mid-March” opening.
The project officially broke ground last March, and will replace the aging Oxford Street Shelter, which the city has deemed unsafe and unfit for continued service, often with shelter guests sleeping on mats on the floor instead of beds.
The lease on Oxford Street expires March 1, but the city has requested a 60-day extension to run through the end of April.
Buildout of the Homeless Services Center had been smooth, Bunker said, though the project had several hurdles, including an “intense public process,” and “a lot of controversy,” most notably in the form of a citizen referendum that sought to prohibit large shelters in favor of a series of smaller shelters throughout the city.
“To see the investment that the city and the citizens of Portland have made in helping people in this facility, it’s a really well-done facility,” Bunker said. “It’s pretty cool to see.”
The Riverside shelter will be the biggest of its kind in Maine, and the first homeless shelter project of this size handled by Developers Collaborative, which has developed residential, commercial, mixed-use and affordable housing projects. Also under construction is a project for asylum seekers in Brunswick, similar to what Avesta Housing had tried to do in Portland with Winchester Woods.
Cullen Ryan, who has been executive director for Community Housing of Maine for roughly 20 years, said he is excited for the new shelter because it is “designed to be a services center” that Oxford Street never was. Ryan worked for the city from 1997 to 2002, first arriving as a clinician and eventually overseeing the shelter, which expanded to its current capacity of 154 during that window. From 2000 to 2002, he oversaw all homeless services and launched a refugee and immigrant services program for the city.
Ryan said that during his time overseeing Oxford Street, a consistent figure of roughly 75 percent of people experiencing “circumstantial homelessness” passed through the shelter system quickly, with many staying just a few nights. The pandemic bumped those figures up, with people occupying beds and hotels for longer stretches.
He believes Portland would benefit from a “two-track system” which looks to house the homeless population in a different way from asylum seekers, who are prohibited from working for six months when they arrive, and therefore can’t afford housing.
“That’s the storm on the horizon, it will be hard for the city and the state to do both,” Ryan said. “It’s two important needs, but you need a two-track system.”