PORTLAND, Maine — On Tuesday evening, the city will present a design for a new 200-bed homeless shelter that it hopes will eventually replace its aging and overcrowded shelter on Oxford Street.
The plans will be presented to the City Council’s health and human services committee, which is examining how the city can better address the needs of Portland’s large homeless population that is now concentrated in a few blocks of the Bayside neighborhood.
“Right now, people seeking emergency shelter in Portland have to sleep on mats on the floor, inches from their neighbors, and leave the shelter every morning with all of their belongings in tow,” City Councilor Belinda Ray, chairperson of the council’s health and human services committee, said in a statement.
A floor plan for the new shelter shows permanent sleeping space for 126 men and 60 women, as well as room for 25 more beds that could be used as needed. It also has a health clinic, kitchen, 136-person dining room, outdoor courtyard, laundry room and staff offices.
The Oxford Street Shelter now has space for 154 people to sleep. But nearly every night, the city relies on the Preble Street Resource Center to make space for people it can’t accommodate, said Rob Parritt, the shelter director.
Beyond scaling up, the city officials say that the proposed shelter would differ from the space it leases on Oxford Street in a number of important ways.
Whereas the existing shelter is a three-story building, the new one would be a single floor and allow fewer staff members to oversee the people staying there. The new facility would also be open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, while Oxford Street only operates in the evening.
The city estimates that the new facility would allow it to save about $500,000 from the Oxford Street shelter’s $3.5 million budget.
The shelter would also offer an array of health and social services on site, something that Preble Street Executive Director Mark Swann applauded.
Swann said that his organization, which offers an array of services for the homeless and needy, was thrilled that the city is moving ahead with the much-needed replacement of the Oxford Street shelter. But he cautioned the city against relying too much on outside service providers with fragile funding streams in setting up the full-service facility.
The health and human services committee is also looking at where to put the new shelter.
In June, the City Council approved regulatory changes that would allow a shelter in light industrial zones throughout the city, opening the possibility of placing a new facility off the peninsula. A condition of those changes was that a shelter must be located within a half mile of a public transit line.
“Any place that we would go would have to have very easy access to public transportation,” said Parritt.
The plan for a single large shelter moves away from another alternative to the Oxford Street Shelter that officials had been considering.
Last year, former Councilor Edward Suslovic, then the chair of the health and human services committee, suggested a network of smaller shelters around Portland. The different sites could serve people with different needs, Suslovic suggested, such as a dry shelter for people trying to stop drinking.
Parritt said that a single large shelter would allow the city run its services more efficiently and better gather information on the city’s homeless population.
The City Council’s health and human services committee is scheduled to meet at 5:30 p.m. Tuesday in the State of Maine Room on the second floor of City Hall.