Portland will likely not use the Joyce House near the Cumberland County Jail as a shelter for the homeless because an agreement could not be reached with Cumberland County, which owns the property.
Kristen Dow, the city’s director of health and human services, said during a Parks Commission meeting last week that the city and county had “run into some challenges” during contract negotiations.
Dow said she didn’t think it was “a hurdle we’ll be able to overcome.” She said lawyers for the city and county would continue the discussion, but said the city is already talking with Maine Housing about other options.
“Last I heard we are at a stopping point where there was no more wiggle room,” Dow said.
To make up for the 50 or so beds that would be lost by not using the Joyce House, Dow said the city has reached an agreement with a local hotel to serve as shelter for the winter. The hotel, like other hotels the city uses for sheltering purposes, is paid for by Maine Housing and comes at no city cost. Dow said this hotel will offer 144 rooms, serve as a 24/7 shelter, and has already started serving clients.
The city announced it would use the low-security inmate building after it had to stop using the Portland Exposition Building on Park Avenue earlier this fall when the city needed to use the center as a polling place. City staff had also said the agreement to use the Expo as a shelter expired at the end of October, in time for the Maine Red Claws basketball team to resume its use of the building.
Dow said only 75-90 people stayed in the city’s various shelters during the summer, while during the winter that number historically has been closer to 200-225 people, including overflow space no longer available to the city at the Preble Street Resource Center.
During the summer, when people began congregating in Deering Oaks Park, Dow said the city began holding regular meetings for social service providers to provide outreach and services for those in need. She said the city sees it as a citywide issue, not just a Deering Oaks discussion, as winter sets in.
Although the city reduced its public health division at the outset of the coronavirus pandemic, Dow said that staff is now fully operational. Part of its work is daily sweeps of Deering Oaks Park for used and discarded hypodermic needles, which had become such a health concern this summer that the city temporarily stopped sending parks staff in to clean and maintain Deering Oaks.
During the Parks Commission meeting, Commissioner Marie Gray asked about who is staying in the park; she said she sees many of the same people there each day and asked if the city knows if they are truly homeless, or just went there because regular day shelters weren’t available.
She said in her estimation, more people are using the park as a place for “social gathering” and were not all staying there.
Dow estimated it was a 50-50 split of people who were truly unsheltered, and those who just wanted to congregate in the park. She also indicated people staying in the park are doing so by choice and not because they don’t have adequate shelter available.
“Portland has an unprecedented number of housing options available right now in our community,” she said. “I would think if someone is unhoused in the park, it’s not because there is unavailable shelter.”