Portland’s current emergency shelter space is nearing full capacity shortly after being made available to a recent wave of asylum seekers coming into the city.
Interim City Manager Danielle West and Director of Health and Human Services Kristen Dow told the city council that the Portland Exposition Building on Park Ave had capacity for 300 beds, and as of Monday night, was already at 275.
Space at other facilities is similarly filled, according to Dow. The recently opened homeless services center on Riverside Street is at its 208-person capacity; the family shelter is at its 146-person capacity; the hotel in Saco the city uses is at its 328-person capacity; and other hotels utilized for emergency shelter by General Assistance are at their 159-person capacity.
“We’ve definitely reached our limit,” West said.
Portland no longer places individuals or families in hotels outside of Portland. The Saco hotel is under contract with MaineHousing to provide shelter for asylum seekers.
According to Dow, the shelters being at or near capacity strains Portland’s ability to provide staffing, social services and food.
The Expo building was used as an emergency shelter for incoming asylum seekers in the summer of 2019. According to Dow, the difference between then and now is that as that time, the Expo was the only shelter used for that purpose so staff could focus on it.
The city can only use the Expo through the end of the summer as an emergency shelter.
Councilor Mark Dion, whose district includes the new homeless services center on Riverside Street, said that Portland was “running out of runway.” He floated the prospect that Portland should “consider there has to be some intentional coordinated transfer of individuals coming to this city.”
“I don’t fault them,” Dion said of asylum seekers. “They’ve been given an expectation that we’re able to meet their needs. I believe the runway’s ending really quick, in real time.”
West responded to Dion to the effect that the breaking point had arrived. She advocated that other communities step up and help address the homelessness crisis, which several councilors, including Dion, had called on for years.
West and Snyder continue to lobby in Augusta for additional help and resources. Additionally, Developers Collaborative, a real estate development firm, is working to convert a warehouse on Blueberry Road into another emergency shelter, which West estimated could hold between 300 to 400 beds.
Councilor Regina Phillips pointed out that that would essentially mean transferring people from the Expo to the Blueberry Road, and wouldn’t solve capacity issues.