Sarah Michniewicz, president of the Bayside Neighborhood Association, outside her house: “I think there’s this narrative that (a moratorium) will harm, stall or stop shelter creation ... in the city in general, and that narrative is completely false.” (Portland Phoenix/Jim Neuger)
advertisementSmiley face

High-end housing, popular restaurants and businesses, and a new sense of energy are inhabiting Portland’s Bayside neighborhood.

But that part of the city is also the home of several emergency homeless shelters. The resulting clash has led to a City Council proposal to place a moratorium on new shelters in the neighborhood.

Portland City Councilor Belinda Ray: “What we have been doing for the past 20-30 years, really, is concentrating all the shelter beds in the city in one, 500-foot radius.” (Courtesy Belinda Ray)

That proposed 180-day, temporary ban, which could be extended, would give the city time to create new licensing guidelines for shelters. It will return to the council for a vote on June 7 after it narrowly failed to be enacted as an emergency order on May 17.

Councilor Belinda Ray, who serves on the Health and Human Services and Public Safety Committee and whose District 1 includes Bayside, said the moratorium is needed because there isn’t any city ordinance that “suggests there should be some spacing between shelter facilities.”

“What we have been doing for the past 20-30 years, really, is concentrating all the shelter beds in the city in one, 500-foot radius,” Ray said.

She said there are about 400 shelter beds in a two-block area of Bayside, which led to the HHS Committee taking up the discussion about new licensing – things like increased buffers between shelters and a maximum number of beds in any one-mile radius.

“That seems like an important thing to get in place,” Ray said. “Right now, Bayside is completely non-conforming to (city) requirements. When we put licensing in place, it would not close (the existing) facilities, but it would make it so we couldn’t continue to saturate that area.”

Supporting the ban

Sarah Michniewicz, president of the Bayside Neighborhood Association, said the proposed moratorium is “absolutely” necessary.

Michniewicz said the city needs to “take a pause” as it creates new licensing guidelines for shelters, whether they are city-run or privately operated.

“I think there’s this narrative that this will harm, stall or stop shelter creation … in the city in general, and that narrative is completely false and not reflected in the language of the moratorium in any way,” Michniewicz said. “It’s just for Bayside, it’s just for 180 days, and (committee chair Councilor Tae Chong) clarified it could be halted as soon as licensing is enacted.”

Michniewicz said there’s another narrative being pushed by opponents to the moratorium that the ban isn’t necessary at all, since there are currently no plans for an additional emergency shelter in Bayside.

“If no new shelters are planned,” she said, “then how is it harmful?”

Michniewicz added she feels it is “disingenuous” to say there are no new shelters planned, however, because the Preble Street Resource Center – which received approval to transition its former soup kitchen into a 40-bed wellness center – has outlined a vision to open a new 40-bed women’s shelter in Bayside in the next five years.

“All of that seems to pretty clearly point toward a plan to open not just the 5 Portland St. (wellness center) but another shelter too,” she said. “In that sense the moratorium is legitimate. If another shelter were to be opened, that’s just not great practice.

“It’s hard for me to wrap my head around arguments against it,” Michniewicz said.

Bayside has more than 80 percent of the city’s shelter beds, she said, and nearly 30 percent of all the possible shelter beds in the state.

“None of that would matter in the least if it were a system that had worked for the entire community,” Michniewicz said. “It clearly hasn’t. Adding more shelters to that before we get around a holistic approach for the whole city doesn’t really make sense.”

Both Michniewicz and Ray said what has been going on in Bayside amounts to a kind of segregation, where all the people seeking social services are pushed to one section of the city.

The moratorium is important “from a service perspective and a community perspective,” Ray said. “It’s important we do not segregate the people with the fewest resources in one area. It creates a lot of inequity for those folks seeking the services.”

The Oxford Street side of the Preble Street Resource Center in Portland’s Bayside neighborhood. (Portland Phoenix/Jim Neuger)

Initially, Ray said, she wanted the moratorium to be a citywide prohibition on any new facility without adequate day space. The new licensing, she said, will make it so new shelters have to provide day space for clients who stay at the shelter. Currently, day space is only required at shelters beyond a quarter-mile of a METRO bus route, which Ray said is a “faulty construct.”

“We don’t want people who are trying to transition back into permanent housing or more stable housing to have to leave during the day,” she said.

Other aspects the new licensing would look at, Ray said, include being 24/7 facilities; having good relationships and communications with the surrounding neighborhood, and requiring city-run shelters to be reviewed annually by the City Council.

Against the moratorium

One of the most vocal opponents to the proposed moratorium has been the Preble Street Resource Center, which was the last emergency shelter approved for the neighborhood. The organization opted to close its soup kitchen last summer and transition to a 40-bed wellness center expected to open this year.

Despite repeated attempts over several days to interview members of Preble Street’s leadership team, the organization declined to participate in this story, saying Executive Director Mark Swann, Deputy Executive Director Donna Yellen, or anyone best suited to speak on the subject was unavailable because their “schedules are packed with all that is going on right now,” according to the agency’s communications coordinator.

Instead, a reporter was referred to the organization’s website and newsletter, which urge residents to press their city councilors to oppose the moratorium. 

“For people experiencing the pain and trauma of homelessness, the last thing they need is another barrier or another voice saying they don’t belong,” the newsletter says. “They deserve dignity, love, and a warm welcome into emergency shelters that offer them safety and resources to move themselves forward to housing and hope.”

The organization’s website says there are “dozens of unsheltered people in Portland, and over 400 individuals and families sheltered temporarily in nearby hotels.” It says Maine has seen an 84 percent increase in homelessness facing veterans since the coronavirus pandemic began in March 2020. It also says the pandemic and an affordable housing crisis have increased from an average of 86 days to now 163 days the time it takes to connect people facing homelessness to housing.

Developer’s perspective

Nathan Szanton, founder and president of the development group The Szanton Co., has another perspective on the Bayside neighborhood. Szanton’s company built the Furman Block, a 51-unit, seven-story apartment building in the heart of Bayside; from the top floor, there is a bird’s-eye view of the area.

He said the proposed moratorium would be good for Bayside because that part of the city provides “an enormous amount” of social services for homeless people.

The Furman Block on Parris Street is one of the signs of Bayside’s new energy. (Portland Phoenix/Jim Neuger)

“It’s more fair to have a variety of neighborhoods in the city host those kinds of programs rather than just one,” Szanton said.

Szanton said Bayside has done a great job hosting those services and should be commended. But he also said that the neighborhood is trying to develop a robust economy of its own, and the proposed moratorium would benefit that development. 

Michniewicz said residents are frustrated not just by what’s happened to the neighborhood, but the way they’ve been portrayed. She said the proposed moratorium isn’t about removing shelters from Bayside, but simply putting a halt to any new developments in the area, given how many shelter beds and individuals who need them are “corralled” into Bayside.

“It’s just remarkably frustrating to have lived here for as long as I have, and seen the changes and impacts not just on people who live here, but people we interact with on a daily basis who are using services and seeing that get less and less effective,” she said.

“And then there are calls for more and more of it in the same area. Part of the conversation within the committee and the discussions with (city) staff referred to the Comprehensive Plan, which speaks to the need to have equity in distributing services around the city,” she said. “I don’t think anybody in their right mind could look at this, could look at putting so many vulnerable people in one area and call that equitable for anyone involved.”

Michniewicz said the moratorium would be a “game-changer” for siting future shelters in Portland, once proper licensing is in effect, especially in neighborhoods that are either opposed or unaware.

Spreading out shelters in the future isn’t just about Bayside, she said, but about the clients as well. While there will certainly be those who want to stay around Bayside to use those shelters or services, Michniewicz said there is a benefit to not being downtown.

“There are people who want to be here, and they absolutely still can be,” he said. “It’s not like the shelter capacity is going away. But it’s about not adding any more until we get our arms around what Portland’s role can be and should be and how that will look.”

Ray, the District 1 councilor, said she wishes more people understood that not only is the moratorium not about getting rid of shelters but that a temporary ban will likely only be in place for 90 days. She said if the HHS Committee can vote on the licensing guidelines at its next meeting in June, a recommendation could go before the full council by June 21. That means the council could vote on the licensing by the middle of July, and the moratorium could be lifted.

“This moratorium won’t impact existing facilities, it won’t decrease the number of beds available in Portland, it won’t result in people losing shelter,” Ray said. “There have been emails going around that suggest this will make people homeless, and that’s not true. All this is doing is saying if someone wants to develop a new facility, they can’t do that in Bayside until we get the licensing done.”

A rendering of the proposed 200-bed shelter on Riverside Street in Portland that would be built by Developers Collaborative.

Portland officials plan to maneuver around shelter referendum

City staff believes they may be able to circumvent a referendum that would stop the construction of a new, 200-bed emergency shelter if they move the shelter proposal quickly through the approval process. 

At a Housing and Economic Development Committee meeting on May 18 where the committee agreed to pursue a proposal from Developers Collaborative to build the Riverside Street shelter, city officials also outlined a plan for the proposal to move forward, even if the referendum effort is successful.

Greg Mitchell, the city Housing and Economic Development director, told the committee that, following its approval for the city to begin negotiations with Developers Collaborative, the hope would be to return to the committee and then the full City Council within the next 30-45 days.

He said if approved by the Council, along with appropriate opportunities for public engagement design and layout of the site at the committee and council levels, he hopes that a “fairly aggressive timeline” would get the proposal to the Planning Board for final approval in the fall. Construction could begin before the end of the year, and the hope would be to have the project finished and ready for occupancy within 24 months.

Michael Goldman, associate corporation counsel for the city, said the city has an avenue around the referendum – which if successful, would be retroactive to April 20. If the project receives final Planning Board approval 45 days before the November election, he said, it can go forward.

“It’s a very tight time frame,” Goldman said.

Mitchell also said there are steps along the way to the referendum that aid the city, including that the earliest date for the referendum would be the regular November election.

Also, Portlanders for Safer Shelters – the group attempting to block the Riverside shelter – has not submitted the required 1,500 signatures from registered voters, and he said there is “uncertainty” around whether it will succeed.

Mitchell said if the project can get council and Planning Board approval quickly, “it would be my hope that would be enough to allow the project to proceed uninterrupted, whether or not a referendum occurs and if it passes.”

Goldman and Mitchell were responding to Councilor Pious Ali, a member of the Housing and Economic Development Committee, who asked how an agreement with Developers Collaborative would be impacted by the referendum.

The referendum initiative would amend the city’s land use ordinance and limit the size of new shelters to 50 beds. It would also remove several standards that are not appropriate for every type of shelter, set limits on shelter size, and ensure new shelters will be open 24 hours a day, except for family and domestic violence shelters.

The committee did not discuss the referendum beyond Ali’s initial questioning, because the chair, Councilor Spencer Thibodeau, sought to keep the panel focused on its primary task, which was beginning negotiations with Developers Collaborative.

“From the chair’s perspective, this committee will continue to move this item forward without delay in our normal process,” he said.

Goldman and Mitchell said they would provide committee members with additional information on the referendum implications for the project at a later date.

The planned 200-bed shelter on Riverside was approved by the City Council on June 17, 2019.

— Colin Ellis