The Portland Phoenix

Limited staff, bitter cold, surging virus put Portland shelters in ‘crisis state’

First Parish Church

Several service providers collaborate to open the First Parish Church on Congress Street as a warming center for Portland's homeless residents on particularly cold days. But they say doing so still doesn't address the need for better shelter services in the city. (Portland Phoenix/Colin Ellis)

Portland’s overburdened emergency shelter services are no longer adequate for supporting the number of people seeking assistance.

Kristen Dow, the city’s Health and Human Services director, said Portland was providing emergency shelter to nearly 1,150 people as of last week, which put the city in a “crisis situation.” She said the City Council must enlist state and federal officials to help address the crisis and the state must assume refugee resettlement efforts.

Portland City Councilor Mark Dion: “People are drowning. This isn’t the time to ask what a life ring looks like.”

The city is seeing the highest nightly averages at shelters that it has ever witnessed. It is contracting with 10 hotels in five municipalities to meet the demand.

“We are getting to the point, we already may be there, (where) the families and individuals we serve won’t have access to the resources they need to be successful,” Dow said.

Meanwhile, with winter having recently pummeled the region with prolonged frigid temperatures and the contagious spread of the Omicron variant during the continuing coronavirus pandemic, those seeking emergency shelter in Portland are in a more precarious state than ever.

“We don’t bring this to you lightly, this is an issue staff is facing on a daily basis,” interim City Manager Danielle West told the City Council last week. “It’s something that keeps me up at night. I look to the council and appreciate any assistance or thoughts you have. It’s reached a crisis state. We just need more help.”

One local service provider said there’s a need for additional shelter space in Portland, especially during the winter.

Andrew Bove, vice president of social work at Preble Street, said while programs like the warming station offered by local service providers are a great collaboration, they’re not enough.

“If people had a spacious shelter they wanted to go to with day space, they wouldn’t need a warming shelter,” he said.

Bove said the city continues to have individuals who are unsheltered and unhoused year-round, meaning they have nowhere to go. They might be restricted from the shelters for behavioral reasons, but said with a proper shelter that can change; in a truly healing and restorative environment, those behavioral issues “reduce or disappear.”

Dow told councilors the city has received funds from Cumberland County to hire a resettlement coordinator. But that’s just one person in charge of all the individuals in the shelters. She said the city has received some additional funding to provide staff to assist families at the hotels.

Last week’s presentation of the sobering and staggering numbers was also the night the council again postponed action on proposed new emergency shelter licensing rules.

City Hall spokesperson Jessica Grondin said city staff is part of a coalition of service providers who try to get people in from the cold.

“Despite staff challenges and the current COVID surge, we are leveraging every possible resource to ensure folks have access to a warm space during the day and ultimately get connected to shelter,” Grondin said.

This coalition identified the First Parish Church on Congress Street for use as a warming shelter when the temperature is 10 degrees or lower, factoring in windchill; the church is available from 8 a.m.-5 p.m. on these days. Grondin said other area shelters and the city’s General Assistance staff will work with the organizations providing day space to ensure people using that day space can also access shelter that night.

Bove said while warming centers are good, they do expose the additional need for shelters: Where are those people supposed to go when the station closes?

Councilor Tae Chong, who chairs the council’s Health and Human Services and Public Safety Committee, last week said this is “the most pressing issue for our city,” one that affects both public health and how the city is able to draft a budget.

He said the city houses people in five different communities using contract hotels, which spreads the already thin staff even thinner by requiring them to travel further. That, coupled with the growing number of people accessing the shelters, has created a situation where surrounding communities, the Legislature, the governor, and the federal government must help, Chong said.

While Chong proposed a workshop with the Portland delegation of state legislators, Councilor Mark Dion, a former state senator and a member of the HHS and Public Safety Committee, said the time for talking is over.

“People are drowning,” Dion said. “This isn’t the time to ask what a life ring looks like.”

He asked Mayor Kate Snyder to make a direct plea for assistance to Gov. Janet Mills. Snyder said she has sent a letter to Mills.

“Everybody feels our pain but nobody is doing a damn thing about it,” Dion said. “We can’t talk anymore. We need a direct infusion of resources.”

Lindsay Crete, a spokesperson for the governor, said Mills is aware of the situation in Portland and remained in communication with city officials. In 2019, Crete said, the state helped Portland handle the arrival of asylum seekers. The tools the state used at that time, including resources from the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention and the Maine Emergency Management Agency, are now almost entirely focused on COVID-19 response.

“The state recognizes the growing issue, though, shares the city’s concerns, and is considering how it might play a constructive role in supporting the city and surrounding municipalities in the short term,” Crete said, adding that action at the federal level is also needed.

Bove said the call for additional aid from the state is “an interesting conversation,” and said Preble Street has had “a lot of positive relations” with the state during the pandemic. He said state investment is important, but it is also important to try to improve what’s already available in Portland. 

“Even in Portland we have folks who aren’t accessing the shelter system here,” he said. “It’s not just people who are coming here to access it, there are people here who aren’t accessing it.”

The city’s planned 208-bed emergency services center on Riverside Street is not expected to open until winter of 2022-2023. And Preble Street is still in the construction phase of its 40-bed wellness center, which will replace the former Preble Street Resource Center soup kitchen. 

In the meantime, the city’s Oxford Street Shelter continues to operate and serve a high number of clients – even though councilors and city officials have said it is no longer suitable to serve as a shelter.

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