Early last week, while dangerous arctic temperatures and wind chills were forecast for Portland over the weekend, a network of community outreach workers, volunteers and city staff sprang into action.
It was Tuesday, and they still had not seen any formal announcement from the city about a plan to keep Portland’s population of people experiencing homelessness safe during an expected 48-hour stretch of subzero temperatures.
So a team of social workers, clinicians, harm reductionists and others mobilized to express the need for overnight shelter. They gathered warm clothing, propane for small heaters, sleeping bags and more, many of them urging the city to announce a plan.
By late afternoon Wednesday, the city announced that it would open day and night warming shelters at several locations during Friday and Saturday’s extreme cold stretch.
The news was a relief, but left Dani Laliberte with conflicting emotions, because of the overarching reality that people still face most of their nights out in the cold.
“There should have been shelter tonight, last night,” she told the Phoenix on Thursday, a day before the official warming shelter opened. “We know it gets cold every year, we know hundreds of people are sleeping outside,” she added.
Laliberte, a community outreach worker, was part of one of many groups that spent last week arming unhoused people with tools and shelter to weather the frigid conditions.
“[We’re] a group of professional, skilled humans that want to be loud, because we’re sick and tired of playing it safe — our communities are demanding that we do better,” said Laliberte, who volunteered independently of her work with a nonprofit community action agency.
According to a city spokesperson, Portland officials had been working with community partner agencies for days to locate shelter locations for the weekend before announcing it on Wednesday afternoon.
Interim City Manager Danielle West said that while the city’s shelters are at capacity, they recognized “the urgent need for those who are without shelter in these extreme temperatures,” and thanked community partners and volunteers “to ensure that this life-saving measure is taken during this weather emergency.”
The joint response to the harsh conditions could foreshadow future opportunities for more shelter to become available.
In partnership with the city, the Salvation Army’s gymnasium on Cumberland Avenue was one location made available for overnight shelter Friday and Saturday nights. According to Armida Harper, an area coordinator with the Salvation Army, the effort came together because of conversations already taking place behind the scenes.
Salvation Army staff had been working with the city on logistics to reintroduce access to the gym as an overflow family shelter, which was regular practice back before the pandemic. Because those plans had already been loosely in place, it wasn’t a huge leap to provide shelter in an emergency.
“We’ve been in conversations for that to happen again,” Harper said, “[talks] had already been going on for a couple months, and we’re hoping to become overflow for the family shelter probably in the beginning of March or end of February.”
The city has encouraged community partners to apply for funding to open an emergency overflow shelter, and confirmed that the gymnasium is one of the locations that has been discussed, according to city spokesperson Jessica Grondin.
The city served 92 people Friday night and 95 Saturday night in the warming shelters, staffed by trained shelter staff, public health staff, and staff who spoke multiple languages on each shift, Grondin said.
That effort was bolstered by peers and community volunteers, who showed up well before the warming shelter’s slated opening hour of 3 p.m. Friday. They made it so that Friday morning came around and temperatures were already brutally low, those needing shelter could access the overnight shelters early.
A few dozen people hunkered down at First Parish Church on Congress Street Friday morning at the warming center overseen by Greater Portland Peer Services (GPPS), a nonprofit staffed entirely by individuals in recovery.
Steve Broad, who works with GPPS, was present Friday morning. Broad said he used to be out on the streets, but he’s come a long way since then.
“I could’ve used this when I was younger,” he said about GPPS and the warming center.
Every day has its highs and lows, Broad said. “I try to stay in the middle. It’s a roller coaster — that’s what life is like — for everyone.”
Now 48, Broad does what he can to help out with GPPS.
“[I’m] taking all my negatives and using them to help others,” he said.
The group hosted around 120 people on Saturday, according to Founder and Peer Services Director Ben Skillings, with a catered lunch from Maine Meal Assistance. Volunteers handed out warm clothes, hats and mittens.
“[The] biggest takeaway for GPPS is the need for additional shelter space, housing and a drop-in day center where folks can get support, showers 365 days a year,” Skillings said.
The City of Portland’s Homeless Services Center is under construction on the outskirts of the city at 654 Riverside Street, with the original timeline of opening by late spring or early summer.
Skillings said that as a group, providing that kind of shelter space staffed by peers is one of their ongoing priorities.
The First Parish Church on Congress Street has started that process already. They plan to open their doors as a warming center anytime it’s below ten degrees, according to Rev. Elaine Peresluha.
Typically, city officials will declare a weather emergency when it’s cold enough to open warming centers, which is what the church abided by last year. But Peresluha said that the church wants to expand its services because of the need.
Peresluha added that First Parish has been working on the possibility of overnight shelter, but a lot of logistics including staff and health requirements need to be in order before offering sleeping space to people. It won’t happen this year but remains a goal of theirs, she said.
As for the preparations and getting the space ready, that part’s been easy. Since the church made the announcement about the warming center, people have begun dropping off blankets, cash donations and more to help the cause.
“There’s a lot of people who need this, and we’re very glad that we can provide the space and the warmth,” she said.