A homeless man sits on a Congress Street bench in downtown Portland. (Portland Phoenix file/Jim Neuger)
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Portland closed some homeless shelters to new visitors last week after two people tested positive for COVID-19 at the Oxford Street Shelter.

City Manager Jon Jennings announced the decision to temporarily close the Oxford Street Shelter and family shelters during an emergency City Council workshop. The city has been using family shelter space, as well as the Portland Exposition Building, for beds for those who have tested positive for the virus or those who have come in contact with others who have tested positive.

A person who checks in with general assistance workers during regular business hours will be referred to other housing options for the night, Jennings said.

“Otherwise the shelter is not open,” he said of Oxford Street.

A Portland Police Department vehicle parked outside the Portland Expo on Park Avenue April 6, after the city last week turned the building into an auxiliary shelter for homeless people forced to leave the city’s Oxford Street Shelter after two residents there tested positive for coronavirus. (Portland Phoenix/Colin Ellis)

As of March 31, Jennings said, two individuals staying at the Oxford Street Shelter had tested positive for the virus. One was a woman who arrived March 25 from Massachusetts, who later fled the shelter and made her way to Boston via Amtrak. The other was a man who arrived March 20 from California, who Jennings said was cooperative.

Jennings said Oxford Street and the family centers will remain open to those who have already been in the system in the last 90 days, or more than 600 people.

For now, he said, the Expo on Park Avenue is housing individuals not showing symptoms of the disease, but believed to have come in contact with the two positive cases from Oxford Street. Those who have tested positive are quarantined at the Family Center.

Jennings said the goal had been to bring 67 identified individuals to the Expo, but only 38 came.

“We have had many different challenges, many are refusing to be quarantined,” Jennings said.

Jennings said closing the shelters was a hard decision, but it was done out of concern for the safety of city staff and those staying at city shelters.

City spokeswoman Jessica Grondin on Monday said there haven’t been any problems as a result of the city’s action, or any complaints about it.

Jennings said that staffing continues to remain a challenge because, understandably, staff at the shelters have not wanted to come into work. Additionally, he said these environments can become dangerous.

For example, he said, a man staying at the Expo became belligerent and purposefully coughed in the face of a supervisor. He was arrested and will be prosecuted, Jennings said, and the shelter employee may also have to be quarantined.

The city is also opening a temporary adult shelter at Sullivan Gymnasium at the University of Southern Maine, which will contain 50 beds. Mayor Kate Snyder said the number of beds was determined by medical professionals who viewed the space.

“It’s a 24-hour program to have space for mealtime and living space,” Snyder said.

The USM space – staffed by Preble Street employees, and created through a partnership with the university, Preble Street, Maine State Housing Authority, and the Maine Department of Health and Human Services – is intended to help alleviate the need for space at Oxford Street, according to Kristen Dow, director of the city’s Health and Human Services Department.

Dow said the same team of medical experts who toured the gym said the ideal number of residents at Oxford Street for now is 75, and fewer if possible.

In response to a question from Councilor Jill Duson, Jennings said these decisions should not be interpreted as the city closing its doors to those in need of services.

“This is a temporary position due to a pandemic in our country that we have seen come to our doorsteps,” Jennings said. “We are addressing a pandemic.”

The city, meanwhile, is also struggling with its ability to enforce any restrictions. Jennings said the city can tell the identified residents they have to stay at the Expo, but only the state can enforce such a directive.

“We have no enforcement mechanisms,” Jennings said.

Dr. Nirav Shah, director of the state Center for Disease Control and Prevention, on Monday said his agency and the Department of Health and Human Services are working closely with city officials and shelter managers to support the city’s response “to make sure city officials have everything they need to make sure Oxford Street is as safe as possible.”

Some homeless families, meanwhile, are being housed at area motels.

Councilor Pious Ali asked Jennings last week if this was safe, since it’s easy to come into contact with others at a motel. He also asked if the city had explored looking into additional housing at the University of New England or Southern Maine Community College.

Jennings said the city is doing the best it can to advise safety precautions. As for UNE and SMCC, he said the city has only had “tangential” conversations about space on those campuses.

Updated April 8, 2020, with additional detail about the shelter at USM.

Portland’s Oxford Street Shelter isn’t accepting new residents after two people at the shelter tested positive for coronavirus. (Portland Phoenix file/Jordan Bailey)

Jennings: ‘A sense of lawlessness’ in Bayside

Portland City Manager Jon Jennings last week said residents of the Bayside neighborhood continue to be the hardest hit by the upheaval at the city’s shelters during the coronavirus pandemic.

Jennings said Bayside area has “a sense of lawlessness” to it during this crisis. 

“We have allowed this to go on for too long,” he told the City Council, noting that if he lived in Bayside, he wouldn’t have the patience that residents are exhibiting.

Councilor Kim Cook said she has heard from several Bayside residents that the situation in Bayside is out of control.

“It feels like a bastion of lawlessness that has just taken over,” Cook said. “Obviously we need to restore order in Bayside, it’s not acceptable, it’s not safe from a public health standpoint.”

Cook asked if it is possible to ask Gov. Janet Mills to give the city more state resources to combat the homelessness and crime in the neighborhood, which could be adding to the spread of the coronavirus. 

“If we feel we can’t arrest people because the jail doesn’t want more people, what are we going to do?” Cook said. ”We have to do something to stop what’s going on now because it’s not going to get better.”

Jennings agreed that the behavior in Bayside is “unacceptable.” 

“You’re absolutely right that we’ve got to restore order,” he said, adding there’s a sense of “I can do whatever I want, anytime I want,” even if that means criminal activity on another person’s property. 

“We have got to reclaim that part of Bayside for these residents (who are) under the gun every single day,” he said.

Councilor Justin Costa, speaking more generally and not about Bayside in particular, said the city needs more action from the state. Portland is the largest and most dense population center in the state, he noted, and more state aid is needed to make sure the pandemic can be controlled.

“If we don’t address this directly in the city of Portland it will reverberate in the state,” Costa said. “The city can’t handle this entirely on its own, we need as much support from everywhere as we can get.”

— Colin Ellis

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