PORTLAND, Maine — Officials want to replace Portland’s homeless shelter with several throughout the city, lifting a regulation that for years has kept those kinds of services consolidated in one section of downtown.
If approved by the City Council, the policy change would disperse the services — and homeless population that uses them — that are now concentrated in West Bayside. The change will better serve the city and people who are homeless, city leaders say, though it is likely to be met with staunch opposition from neighbors of potential facilities.
The plan is in its early stages and no specific sites have been selected, but Councilors Edward Suslovic and Belinda Ray said that the idea is to have facilities that serve people with different needs — such as a dry shelter for people trying to get sober. Modeled after Cambridge, Massachusetts, they suggested spreading smaller shelters throughout the city that each offer an array of services, such as substance abuse counseling, job training and education under one roof.
“Personally, I’d like to see that we would be able to close the Oxford Street Shelter within three years and have it replaced with a network of programmatic shelter,” said Suslovic, chairman of the Council’s Health and Human Services Committee.
A city ordinance now allows shelters only in an oddly shaped zone (see B3) downtown that city leaders say is reminiscent of how electoral districts are shaped to affect election outcomes.
“It certainly looks to me like the old days of gerrymandering congressional districts,” said City Manager Jon Jennings of the area where shelters are allowed.
And as private shelters have closed over the last 15 years, services for Portland’s growing number of homeless people were condensed into a 2½-block stretch between the Preble Street Center and the Oxford Street Shelter.
That arrangement has been a burden for residents of West Bayside, and those struggling to get off the streets while grappling with addiction have had to seek help in an area where drug use and public drinking have become the norm.
The problems in West Bayside led the city this summer to beef up patrols in the area, install more lighting and improve sanitation, among other measures.
Now, officials are saying that Portland’s most vulnerable would be better served by smaller shelters spread throughout the city, and they want to change municipal zoning codes to make that possible.
Suslovic applauded the work of the city staff at the Oxford Street Shelter but said that the physical facilities are outdated and overworn. The city-run shelter also has been strained by a homeless population that has ballooned in recent years.
Part of this growth comes from other cities and towns addressing homelessness with a bus ticket to Portland, according to Ray, who suggested that city shelters should only accept clients with a “geographic tie” to the city.
“Portland cannot handle an endless influx,” said Ray. “Other communities need to step up.”
Jennings presented the broad strokes of the proposed changes at a recent meeting of the Bayside Neighborhood Association and mentioned it to other neighborhood organizations at a meeting last week. He said a formal proposal could be ready for review by city councilors as early as January 2017.
This is not the first time in recent years that Portland has considered dramatic changes to how it serves the homeless. In 2014, the city was contemplating building a single large shelter in Bayside in collaboration with the Preble Street Center, the Portland Press Herald reported at the time.
That plan never came to fruition. But Jennings, who became city manager in 2015, said that he is committed to seeing the city’s zoning code opened up to allow for shelters in other neighborhoods — although he also expects significant opposition.
“We know that the current shelter doesn’t work. We know it doesn’t work for the city. It doesn’t work for the clients. And it doesn’t work for the neighborhood,” said Jennings.