As fall descends into winter, Portland will feel an even bigger crunch when it comes to housing the city’s homeless. On Oct. 25 the city’s agreement with the Portland Exposition Building expires.
The city has been using the Expo, typically used for school track meets and basketball games, and for home games for the Maine Red Claws, as an emergency 75-bed shelter. It has primarily been used as a quarantine center during the pandemic.
City Hall spokesperson Jessica Grondin said as of Oct. 13 the Expo was housing 30 individuals, all men.
The Oct. 25 deadline is the result of the contract with the Red Claws, who are part of the NBA G League, which canceled its 2019-2020 season in March. At that time, league President Shareef Abdur-Rahim expressed hope there would be a 2020-2021 season.
Kristen Dow, director of the city’s Health and Human Services Department, recently told a City Council committee that about 100 people are typically housed at the Oxford Street Shelter and the Expo, while in the winter it’s not uncommon to see a daily demand for 200 beds.
Dow said the city is looking into utilizing the vacant Joyce House, owned by Cumberland County, near the Cumberland County Jail. She said the building can accommodate nearly 50 people, and that it would only be a temporary fix, because it would not be available after next April.
“We are still working on our permanent solution,” Dow said.
According to a memo from City Manager Jon Jennings to the City Council, the Joyce House is at 50 County Way, and is more formally called the Community Corrections Center.
The permanent solution is a proposed 24-hour, seven-day-a-week shelter at 654 Riverside St. Dow said the new shelter, which would replace the 75-bed Oxford Street Shelter, will offer meals and housing, as well as employment assistance, health care, mental health care, and substance use treatment.
“We are moving forward with that while also trying to find an immediate plan for housing,” Dow said.
The city began moving towards the Riverside shelter in 2017, and only approved operations this past February, sending the project to the design stage.
Councilor Belinda Ray, who chairs the Health and Human Services Committee, said the city is working towards a site plan for the Riverside shelter. She said a basic design exists, but without a definite site, it was hard to develop a concrete layout. She compared it to a Lego structure.
“We had all the different pieces, we just weren’t sure how they’d fit together,” Ray said in a recent HHS meeting.
She said staff is working on that now, ahead of site review. She also said the city had to readjust its plans because of the pandemic because when they were initially planning the shelter they hadn’t anticipated having 6-8 feet between beds.
“Once staff comes up with that plan and talks about it internally, we can present it publicly and go through site plan review,” Ray said.
Dow said the city is still in the early stages of moving those Lego blocks around. She said all the public input received so far will still be considered.
The Riverside plan has not received universal approval from city residents, or even from city councilors.
One complaint lodged repeatedly is that the Riverside plan is simply an attempt to move the homeless population away from downtown to a place where its clients would be less visible. Others have said a single shelter model isn’t an improvement over several, smaller shelters scattered throughout the city.
The proposed shelter would accommodate 200 people, although that was prior to the distancing of beds required by COVID-19.
Complicating the shelter situation is the Preble Street Resource Center’s decision to close its soup kitchen earlier this year. The organization transitioned to a mobile food delivery program, and was bringing meals to Deering Oaks Park, which continues to be a gathering area for some of the city’s homeless population.
Preble Street intends to transition to a “wellness shelter” with 40 beds spaced 8 feet apart in an open setting. Its decision, which came at the direction of the Maine Center for Disease Control, led several city officials, including Jennings, to blame the agency for the growing number of people camping in Deering Oaks Park over the summer.
Preble Street’s plan would in part fill the void left by the unavailability of the Sullivan Gym at the University of Southern Maine, which had been used as a wellness shelter in the spring and summer. It is slated to go before the Planning Board for a conditional use approval on Oct. 20.
The city, meanwhile, is also looking at leasing hotel space to accommodate homeless individuals. According to Jennings’ note to the council, the city is looking at leasing an additional 149 beds, to be funded by MaineHousing.
Dow said the city would like to create something like a shelter at a single hotel, with a block of rooms, instead of the current model with rooms in various hotels. She said Bangor recently followed that model and found success.
The state is providing funding to use hotels as de facto shelters, but Dow said definitive information likely won’t be available until at least the end of the month.
“We continue to have conversations with them on what makes the most sense economically,” she said.
The HHS Committee’s next meeting is scheduled for Nov. 10.