Portland declares moratorium on new shelters in Bayside

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Portland city councilors on Monday enacted a temporary ban on new emergency shelters in the Bayside neighborhood.

The 180-day moratorium passed 6-3, with Councilors Pious Ali, April Fournier, and Andrew Zarro opposed. It prohibits new shelters in Bayside but does not prevent them in other parts of the city.

Councilor Belinda Ray, a member of the Health and Human Services and Public Safety Committee who represents Bayside in District 1, said the moratorium would not impact any existing services. She said the 180-day timeout would give the committee more than enough time to finalize revised licensing language for new shelters anywhere in the city.

Portland’s Bayside neighborhood contains many of the city’s providers of services and shelter to the homeless. (Courtesy city of Portland/Bayside Neighborhood Association)

Councilor Tae Chong, chair of the committee, charged that disinformation had been spread about the council’s intent. He said the moratorium is not an effort to close existing shelters, shut down social services, prohibit new shelters elsewhere in the city, or permanently prohibit any new shelters in Bayside. He said it is hitting “a pause button” so the committee can develop its recommendations.

Ray also said the moratorium won’t “change the face of Bayside” or provide immediate relief, but is about stopping an existing trend from getting worse in the neighborhood between Interstate 295, Congress Street, Franklin Street, and Forest Avenue.

“We have been clustering people with the fewest resources in this area,” she said, adding she didn’t see why “stopping that practice is viewed as a bad idea.”

The moratorium could be extended for an additional 180 days if the city demonstrates it is actively working to update existing regulations.

The last shelter in Bayside to receive city approval was the 40-bed wellness center being developed at the former Preble Street Resource Center. Formerly the site of a soup kitchen, the organization transitioned away from that kind of congregate service because of the coronavirus pandemic. Preble Street has opposed the moratorium, asking its supporters as recently as Friday, June 4, to reach out to city councilors and have them reject the proposal.

The organization claimed the moratorium would create a public health problem because there are dozens of unsheltered people in the city and more than 400 individuals and families temporarily sheltered in nearby hotels.

During Monday’s discussion, some councilors questioned why the only emailed public comment that was included in their background material appeared to be from moratorium proponents. Fournier said she received at least 75 emails that were not part of the councilors’ information packet. City Manager Jon Jennings and City Clerk Kathy Jones responded that not every email sent to a councilor is also sent to city staff, so there’s no way to guarantee each one is included.

Ray also said she didn’t want there to be a narrative that there was a “conspiracy theory” going on and that the city was intentionally leaving out public comment. She said the city needs a more consistent way for residents to know their emailed comments are seen.

Councilors favored holding a future workshop on ways to streamline emailed public comment. Snyder noted the Planning Board’s process of having a central email for comments.

Despite a question from Ali about whether this was a reason to delay the vote, city attorney Danielle West-Chuhta said the council could continue and vote since it would be hearing oral public comments.

More than a dozen people spoke, expressing a mix of opinions.

Andrew Bove, vice president of social work at Preble Street, asked councilors to vote against the moratorium. He said Preble Street had never worked harder to support the homeless community than it has during the pandemic, and that even with things beginning to open again, “the pandemic is still a reality for those experiencing homelessness.”

“Limiting and restricting shelters is bad public policy,” Bove said.

Bill Higgins, a member of Portlanders for Safer Shelters, the group working to place a referendum on the November ballot that would limit shelter sizes and possibly prevent the city from establishing a large shelter off Riverside Street, said his organization strongly opposes the moratorium. He said homelessness will increase as evictions begin again, and Preble Street’s wellness center is just 40 beds – down from the 75 beds the organization historically offered before the pandemic.

“Some of the discussion of this moratorium has been directly insulting of individuals who are homeless,” Higgins said.

Jim Wray, who said he lives in Portland and has stayed in shelters, said the existing centralized shelters make it easier to obtain social services. Forcing them out of Bayside will create hardships for those in need, he said, especially those who, like himself, aren’t from Maine and don’t always know the area.

Wray said the discussion made it feel like he and others who use the shelters are being targeted, with the intent of keeping them out of public view.

“Everything is right where we need it,” he said. “If you move it, if you move us, what do we do?”

Heidi Souerwine, a Mechanic Street resident, supported the moratorium. She said what’s been happening in Bayside hasn’t worked, and new shelter licensing will improve the way the city and neighborhood support people experiencing homelessness.

“This doesn’t prevent other shelters elsewhere in the city,” Souerwine said. “This doesn’t affect any great programs working to help unsheltered people. It only briefly paused shelters in a teeny, tiny, quarter-mile area.”

Sarah Michniewicz, president of the Bayside Neighborhood Association, said by adopting the moratorium the council would show the city is ready to “stop doubling down on the things that got us here.”

She said the city can do better than continue herding the most vulnerable people into a small area where they become a magnet for predators.

Councilors approve $212M budget

The Portland City Council unanimously approved a $212 million budget for fiscal year 2022 while reaffirming its commitment to using federal funding to offset shortfalls.

The budget proposed by City Manager Jon Jennings was slightly delayed because the council’s Finance Committee took extra time to study funds coming from the American Rescue Plan. The process, however, was much closer to a normal budget approval than the 2021 operating budget, which was delayed several months because of the coronavirus pandemic.

The city received $46.2 million in federal funding from ARP, and the 2022 budget uses $8.75 million of that to offset revenue losses related to the pandemic. While Jennings proposed a spending increase of $9.4 million, the ARP funds for several one-time costs contributed to an overall tax reduction on the city side.

The budget reduces residential property taxes by 4 percent, and the combined city tax rate after inclusion of the School Department’s proposed $125.2 million budget – which went to a voter validation referendum Tuesday – would be an increase of about 1 percent, or $54 a year for the owners of a home valued at $300,000.

One last-minute potential addition to the budget came in a debated amendment by Councilors Andrew Zarro and Belinda Ray, who proposed adding $43,000 for the Portland Public Library. Ray said the money would restore two part-time jobs at the lending desk and in personal computing. She said these positions were identified by the library board of trustees and leadership because the library was reopening sooner than anticipated.

“This is relatively inexpensive in the grand scheme of things,” she said.

Ray and Finance Director Brendan O’Connell also said the addition would require an increase of 1 cent to the mil rate, which on the city side is $11.16 per $1,000 of assessed value. O’Connell said the city already contributes more than $4 million of the library’s $4.7 million budget.

Although Ray said she believed the votes were there for the amendment to pass, other councilors were reluctant to add to the tax burden.

Councilor Mark Dion, a former state legislator, compared the process to how bills are shaped in Augusta, where weeks are spent working on a bill only to be amended at the final stage. He said he didn’t believe it was necessarily fair, since there are probably other city departments that would have tried to petition for amendments if they knew it was possible.

Councilor Spencer Thibodeau proposed the council commit to using additional ARP funding to offset the $43,000. If that doesn’t work, Mayor Kate Snyder said, the city will also be getting additional state money from revenue sharing.

Ultimately, Ray and Zarro withdrew their amendment, with the understanding the library positions could be funded via other revenue sources.

— Colin Ellis