Portland city councilors voting on Monday, Feb. 3. They will meet next on Wednesday, Feb. 19, because of the Presidents Day holiday. (File/Jordan Bailey)
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The Portland City Council adopted policy guidelines for establishing a low-barrier homeless shelter, paving the way for design of a mega-shelter in the Riverton neighborhood to replace the downtown shelter on Oxford Street.  

The guidelines, developed by the Health and Human Services Committee over the course of five months, call for an adult shelter where homeless services are available in the building, large enough to accommodate the average number of homeless people the city is currently serving. 

Councilors Kimberly Cook and Justin Costa voted against the resolution, which passed 6-2 on Monday, Feb. 3. Councilor Pious Ali was not in attendance. 

The council rejected an attempt by Cook to delay the design of the shelter until the city receives commitments from state, municipal and nonprofit partners to establish a statewide network of low-barrier shelters. 

She has criticized the committee’s resolution because she said it directs Portland to continue to respond to a statewide problem by operating the only low-barrier shelter in the state without a client cap. Her amendments also called for the city to explore having the shelter operated by a private entity and to develop a public-private funding strategy to pay for the shelter. 

“I think the city of Portland has done itself and those experiencing homelessness a disservice by continuing to increase the beds at Oxford Street … without prior approval of the council,” Cook said.

She suggested that the time is right, under the administration of Gov. Janet Mills, to begin developing partnerships throughout the state. 

People protest outside Portland City Hall Feb. 3 against proposed amendments to homeless shelter guidelines (Portland Phoenix/Jordan Bailey)

“We have something before us that needs a statewide solution and I am convinced that a network of low-barrier shelters around our state is what is needed,” Cook said.

Before the meeting, people held signs outside City Hall depicting silhouettes and the words “shut out.” Protester Carmen Silvius said the images represented the homeless who would be shut out of a future shelter if the city implements a cap, and the members of the public who would likely be barred from providing public comment during the meeting.

She said they particularly opposed the amendments submitted last week by Cook.

“We want it to remain low-barrier. And what (Cook) is proposing will make it higher-barrier. Nobody has had a chance to really look at her proposal. We don’t know what she’s asking really and it needs to be studied. If there is public comment tonight, it needs to be advertised.”

Council rules stipulate that agenda items receive one public hearing, which previously occurred for the shelter resolution on Nov. 18, 2019. In addition, public comment is permitted once every council meeting on non-agenda items, and much comment in those periods has pertained to the shelter. 

Costa said he agreed with the direction of Cook’s amendments because he did not think the process of choosing the site and developing policy guidance had sufficient support from the community. He also agreed with Cook that the time is right to press community partners to help. 

“It’s undeniable that a big part of why that is even a viable topic of conversation is because of changes that are happening at other levels of government,” Costa said. “And I think we need to continue to proactively lean on other providers to see the opportunities that we have because it speaks more concretely … about the capacity of what the city shelter is going to be.” 

Councilor Belinda Ray suggested that partnerships and collaborations already formed would be threatened if the city did not move forward.

“Because we were having these conversations, because we were delving into the issue of homelessness in our community, that is why other people are moving forward,” Ray said. “Because we have been a catalyst for this conversation. And for us to step back would also kill these larger partnerships. And I believe if we were to step back, the good work that’s happening in surrounding communities would cease.” 

Councilor Jill Duson agreed.

“I think that the other municipalities are inspired by our commitment and by our fulfilling that commitment and that is what brings them to the table,” Duson said.

City Manager Jon Jennings said some of the other guidelines Cook sought, such as  establishment of quiet hours, were largely operational issues that should not be included in a policy resolution. Regarding her amendment calling on the city to pursue a private operator for the shelter, he said it is true that Portland is the only city in northern New England that operates a shelter, and that the council may recommend such a move at some point, “but it is not anything that we would contemplate in the near future.”

Cook’s amendment failed 6-2, with support from only Costa and Cook. 

Another attempt to delay the vote came from attorney Kristin Collins of Preti Flaherty, representing residents of the Riverton neighborhood. Cook moved to suspend the rules to allow public comment on a letter Collins sent to the council that afternoon, demanding further study.

After the council discussed whether to suspend the rules and allow public comment on that or any of the proposed amendments, and when it was about to vote on the motion, one member of the public started speaking from the back of the room about his homeless experience.

The council adjourned when he continued to speak after Mayor Kate Snyder warned him he was out of order. The speaker left, the council reconvened, and the motion to allow public comment failed. 

Several councilors and the mayor emphasized that the capacity the shelter would be built to accommodate should not be interpreted as a “cap” because the city is required to provide assistance to people who are eligible for General Assistance, and state law has added homelessness as a qualifying emergency. 

Councilor Nicholas Mavodones also proposed an amendment that would have lowered to 150 the average nightly census the shelter should be built to accommodate. Councilor Spencer Thibodeau added a friendly amendment to change the language to “target nightly census,” noting that the actual average nightly census for the past three years is 200, not 150. 

Setting a lower target, Mavadones argued, would account for the partnerships forming now with other municipalities and nonprofits, which might reduce the need for shelter space in Portland. 

Councilor Tae Chong opposed the amendment because he said that those partnerships are not solidified, nor are they currently before the council. 

“Right now, the policy before us is about the center,” Chong said, “and not about all these other things that we might be creating, and how many of those things are going to be developed in time for this shelter.” 

He also noted that at a Jan. 13 council workshop on the shelter resolution, national homelessness expert Robert Pulster, of the federal Interagency Council on Homelessness, said the number of homeless has been going up in recent years, and that even when a city has a housing-first policy and when there are more low-income housing units opened, it doesn’t necessarily reduce homelessness because poverty has changed. 

“This kind of poverty that we’ve seen, the kind of change we’ve seen in economics in Maine and in the United States is somewhat historic,” Chong said. “The wealth gap is greater now than it’s ever been since the robber barons of the 1800s and early 1900s. … There are  more Americans who have less than $400 just to solve a simple crisis, and that puts a lot of people at risk of being homeless.” 

Ray, chairwoman of the HHS committee, noted that the average nightly census of 200 covers a wide range: The city has seen a maximum of 271 on two nights in the past year, and numbers dropped to 141 in September. It is easier to build larger and scale down, she said, using the extra space for programming or to move beds further apart.  

Mavodones’ amendment failed 4-4, with support from Thibodeau, Duson, Mavodones, and Snyder.

The council then considered the resolution as amended by Ray to incorporate some of the information from the Jan. 13 workshop.

She amended the language regarding the numbers the new shelter should accommodate because it had originally been tied to the average nightly census at a specific date. Other amendments called for establishing a separate triage facility, and directed city staff to work to diversify revenue streams for the construction and operation of the new facility by including other municipal, state and federal funding sources, as well as contributions from private-sector community partners and individuals.

The triage center would be on the peninsula or in another convenient location and direct individuals to either the shelter or to other options. 

The council passed Ray’s amendment unanimously, before discussion of the full resolution. 

Snyder said the resolution provides a context for city staff to address the situation at the Oxford Street Shelter. She said the council may consider public-private partnerships, philanthropy, state and regional partners, and elements of funding and management that could benefit all involved, to secure resources for the project in the future. 

She said one neighborhood is being impacted now by the Oxford Street Shelter and that the community will be involved when establishing a new shelter in the Riverton neighborhood. 

“What I don’t want to see ever is us feeling like we are a city divided by neighborhoods and that the neighborhoods are pitted against one another,” Snyder said. “One thing that I will do is to make sure that there is community engagement as plan-making moves forward in response to any resolution that is the guide.” 

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