Portland councilors may seek temporary ban on new shelters in Bayside

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The Portland City Council may consider a temporary ban on new emergency shelters in the Bayside neighborhood, after hearing complaints that the neighborhood has provided more than its share of city social services.

The council’s Health and Human Services and Public Safety Committee recently discussed a moratorium on shelters in the neighborhood, which is the area between Interstate 295, Congress Street, Franklin Street, and Forest Avenue.

The Preble Street Resource Center, at the corner of Oxford and Preble streets in Portland’s Bayside neighborhood, where the City Council in January approved creation of a wellness center to replace the traditional soup kitchen and overflow homeless shelter. City officials are now considering a moratorium on new shelters in the neighborhood. (Portland Phoenix/Colin Ellis)

The committee members – Councilors Tae Chong, Belinda Ray, and Mark Dion – unanimously agreed at the April 13 meeting they want the city corporation counsel to create a draft moratorium on shelters to review for their next meeting. They would then presumably send their recommendation to the full council.

Chong, who chairs the committee, initially seemed reluctant, saying he believed the City Council and Planning Board would respect the process they were working toward on shelter licenses. But he was swayed by his colleagues.

Ray said ideally she would like the process to go straight to the council and skip the committee, which Associate Corporation Counsel Anne Torregrossa said was possible. But Ray also admitted the best chance of getting the moratorium enacted might include having it vetted by the committee.

“My ultimate interest is to get this passed,” she said, “not just to get it to the council and see it fail.”

Torregrossa said a moratorium, which would give the city enough time to draft a permanent regulation, could last for 180 days. She said the city can extend the life of the moratorium twice, as long as it can demonstrate it is actively working to update the existing regulation.

The last shelter in Bayside to receive city approval was the 40-bed wellness center at the former Preble Street Resource Center. Formerly a soup kitchen and resource center, the organization transitioned away from those services following medical guidance due to the coronavirus pandemic.

The agency’s decision elicited opposition in the Bayside neighborhood, with some residents and city officials claiming Preble Street didn’t do enough to communicate its plan. City Manager Jon Jennings even blamed Preble Street’s decision for creating more publicly visible gatherings of homeless individuals last summer in Deering Oaks Park.

Dion said a moratorium would be an important statement to Bayside residents that the city is willing to protect the neighborhood from having additional shelters. He said he wants the moratorium to be specific to the neighborhood because he doesn’t want to limit the city’s ability to respond to future needs.

Aaron Geyer, Portland’s director of social services, said the city has increased capacity but has not created any new shelters in Bayside in several years. Kristen Dow, the director of health and human services, also said she does not know of any shelters that were opened recently in the neighborhood.

Ray, meanwhile, said she is concerned about the possibility of a proposal being grandfathered because it gets to the Planning Department before a moratorium could be enacted. She also said a moratorium would prevent action by private developers, and not just the city.

Portland may use Community Development Block Grant funds to create a new day center that would allow the existing Oxford Street Shelter to be used only for overnight services.(Portland Phoenix file/Jordan Bailey)

City eyes grants for day space, public restrooms

Nearly a year after high-profile encampments prompted many in Portland to demand additional resources for the homeless, the city is considering using federal grants to pay for new, permanent public restrooms and a new day center on the peninsula.

City Manager Jon Jennings told the City Council the day space would be an alternative to having people congregate at the Oxford Street Shelter, which is not designed for that purpose.

During the coronavirus pandemic, many of the usual places homeless individuals could gather when not permitted in a shelter were not open. Jennings said the new day center will have several benefits, including giving those around the Oxford Street Shelter a place to eat meals during the day.

He said the establishment of the center will require a formal request for proposals.

Jennings said the total investment in homeless services, supplemented with other grants, would be around $1 million, highlighted by the day center. It would also include a prevention and diversion program on the peninsula, based on a model of the Pine Street Inn Front Door Triage Program in Boston.

“Staff will have the ability to seek alternate resources, connect with property owners to mediate evictions, and enroll individuals in prevention case management services” before they enter an emergency shelter or homelessness, Jennings said in a memo to councilors. “The program will operate seven days a week, providing Portland residents access to homeless prevention services every day of the week.”

He said a triage program like this can keep people from having to use an emergency shelter.

Public restrooms on and off the peninsula would require an allocation of $150,000. Jennings said the city is seeking additional federal funding for a “robust public restroom program” to create restrooms that are not Port-A-Potties.

The city was criticized last summer, at the height of the pandemic and a homeless encampment in Deering Oaks Park, for not having adequate public restrooms available for unsheltered individuals.

Community Development Block Grants are funded by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and allocated by the Maine Department of Economic and Community Development.

— Colin Ellis

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