Portland grapples with providing shelter for its homeless

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Despite continued concern from Bayside residents, plans to turn the former Preble Street Resource Center into a 40-bed “wellness center” seem headed for Planning Board approval.

Meanwhile, the city’s solution for sheltering its homeless population through the winter is the stopgap leasing of space in local hotels after a plan to use a Cumberland County facility fell through after several months of negotiations over insurance.

While Portland continues to wrestle with how to house the city’s homeless, the plan to turn the former Preble Street Resource Center into a 40-bed wellness center is progressing through the Planning Board, with some Bayside neighbors still at odds with the organization. (Portland Phoenix/Colin Ellis)

Preble Street’s proposal continues to advance through Planning Board workshops, with a vote on a conditional use application to transition from a soup kitchen and resource center to the wellness shelter likely in January.

Preble Street’s proposal has had two workshops, one on Dec. 8 and another earlier in the fall, where agency officials received feedback from board members. In response, Preble Street said it had worked on its management plan, which includes added responsibilities for the organization – primarily cleaning up trash around the property, which has been a longstanding complaint from Bayside residents. The plan also includes added safety measures, better staffing, working to address neighborhood concerns, and more.

Ted Kelleher, an attorney representing Preble Street, said the management plan is highly detailed and increases the organization’s accountability and monitoring in the neighborhood.

Kelleher also urged the board and opponents to recognize that the city’s homeless population needs this project urgently.

“There are 50 to 100 people per night unsheltered here in Portland,” he said, including several who cannot use other shelter spaces for various reasons.

Many Bayside residents are still critical of Preble Street, claiming the organization has been a bad neighbor.

Bayside resident Tim McNamara on Dec. 8 said Preble Street’s request conflicts with the city’s Comprehensive Plan, and with the wishes of people who live in the neighborhood. He also said it was highly unlikely Preble Street staff would actually commit to monitoring the area around the facility late at night or early in the morning in the middle of the winter.

“The city does not need or want another emergency shelter in that neighborhood,” he said.

Preble Street Executive Director Mark Swann said the organization is already highly scrutinized, and that it regularly provides up to 500 reports annually to stakeholders.

“Not a day goes by we are not reporting on our agency as a whole,” he said of the organization’s accountability.

Donna Yellen, Preble Street deputy director, said the agency’s plan is to create a small, specialized wellness center for people who can’t access the other shelters. She said no one wants to see people sleeping outside, although last week Preble Street staff found four people sleeping on the sidewalk outside the resource center, presumably after sleeping there overnight throughout a snowstorm.

“Those are the people we are creating the shelter for,” she said.

Yellen said Preble Street will work towards three goals: clients will have reasonable expectations for their behavior, staff will enforce that behavior, and mechanisms will be in place to receive and respond to future neighborhood concerns.

She said the organization will facilitate periodic community meetings, staff will meet with county crisis teams and the Portland Police Department, and managers will provide people with their contact information for neighborhood concerns. She said staff will do hourly rounds around the perimeter of the property, which is what McNamara openly doubted.

Police Chief Frank Clark said his department is satisfied with Preble Street’s efforts. “I think it will come down to boots on the ground to make sure we are holding people accountable,” Clark said.

Hotel housing

While Preble Street’s plan would create a 40-bed center for those most in need, there are still hundreds in need of shelter throughout the city, and many of those will either have to be housed in hotel rooms or seek shelter elsewhere.

City Manager Jon Jennings, who throughout the summer frequently blamed the existence of homeless encampments in Deering Oaks Park and outside City Hall on Preble Street’s decision to close its meal and day services, said city staff has been “scrambling” to make sure people have shelter.

Part of that plan was the failed effort to use the Joyce House, a county property near the Cumberland County Jail. He said that fell through not because of the county manager or commissioners, but because of a statewide county risk board that put impediments in the city’s way and increased the risk the city was taking on.

County Manager James Gailey also said it was unfortunate a deal could not be made for the Joyce House.

“We wanted to help the city support their housing efforts through the Joyce House, and we agree with the city that the liability threshold is excessive,” Gailey said in a press release. “But those decisions are out of our control.”

Instead, Jennings said the city will use funding from Maine Housing to continue to partner with hotels to provide emergency shelter. He said there is hope to get additional space in a hotel near the Portland International Jetport.

City Councilor Belinda Ray, who represents District 1, where Preble Street is located, said the city recently provided shelter to 550 individuals and families, which is more than ever. So while the capacity is smaller because of coronavirus pandemic protocols, the overall number of individuals being served has increased.

During a Dec. 7 City Council Meeting, Jennings continued to defend the city’s actions, saying he believed there was false information being spread about what the city was doing for the homeless population. Speaking in response to public comment on the issue, and specifically from frequent city critic and Bayside resident George Rheault, Jennings said he spends more time on homelessness and issues around homelessness than any other subject. He said city staff was working tirelessly to ensure there were enough beds.

“I find it so incredibly frustrating when the public is given bad information and we don’t respond,” Jennings said. “There is no one, and I mean no one, doing more for the homeless population than the city of Portland, and it’s not even close.”

Jennings was responding to comments Rheault made about homelessness in Bayside, and specifically around Preble Street’s proposal. Rheault also criticized the city’s plans to shelter the homeless, from the failed bid to use county facilities to plans to use hotels throughout the winter.

“We need action, we need explanations, what we don’t need is any more political spin,” he said.

Riverside progress

While Preble Street has routinely had city officials’ fingers pointed at it throughout the spring, summer, and fall, little progress has been made on the city’s long-term plan for a new shelter in the Riverside neighborhood to replace the 75-bed Oxford Street Shelter.

The 200-bed, 24/7 shelter was first proposed in 2017. City staff has said the project is still in the design stage.

Rheault, at the Dec. 7 Council meeting, criticized both Ray and Councilor Tae Chong, who were on the Health and Human Services Committee, for what he said were their attacks against Preble Street throughout the process. He said the committee wasted time speaking in vague terms on mental health services, while not actually addressing the issues.

He said Preble Street could have already been helping 40 people, but the city continued to get in the way.

“This is what I talked about back in the beginning of the year,” Rheault said, referring to Mayor Kate Snyder. “This is the ‘Snyder City’ that claims it’s helping people but is doing the exact opposite.”

Deaths in Portland, South Portland cause alarm

City Hall confirmed a 48-year-old woman was found dead Dec. 12 on a Portland street.

City Communications Director Jessica Grondin on Monday said an autopsy was performed to determine Joy Mulvihill’s cause of death, but the results of toxicology tests were still pending. She said the city received calls suggesting several people had died while staying outside, but called those reports unfounded.

However, Grondin also said two men with ties to Portland died in motels in South Portland in the past few weeks. One was staying in a motel that Portland uses to provide shelter for its homeless people, and the other was using a general assistance voucher.  

On Monday, the South Portland Police Department said it conducted five death investigations at four motels between Dec. 2 and 19, but declined to provide any further details, including names, ages, and causes of death, citing state laws that protect confidential medical records. The motels involved were the Comfort Inn, 90 Maine Mall Road; Days Inn, 461 Maine Mall Road; Quality Inn, 738 Main St., and Maine Motel, 606 Main St.

An initial report about Mulvihill’s death that circulated on social media was attributed to Joanne Arnold, a photographer who has chronicled the city’s homeless and photographed Mulvihill once several years ago.

Arnold last week said Mulvihill was found outside a gas station, where she had likely been drinking, and froze to death. Other social media posts indicated the death happened near the intersection of Congress and Douglass streets.

“There have been several more deaths just in the last week or so,” Arnold said via email. “There’s tremendous grief out there.” 

While she did not know Mulvihill’s housing status when she died, Grondin said Mulvihill had recently stayed at Florence House, a Valley Street women’s shelter operated by Preble Street and Avesta Housing. She also said Mulvihill was accompanied by another person at the time of her death.

Arnold’s suggestion that “several” other homeless people have died in Portland was disputed by Grondin, along with the suggestion that Mulvihill froze to death.

“I think there’s trying to be a narrative of people dying because of elements, and that’s not what’s happening,” Grondin said.

Preble Street, meanwhile, on Dec. 21 released it’s annual Winter Soltice list of homeless people who died during the year. The list of 64 names included Mulvihill.

— Colin Ellis