PORTLAND, Maine — A city-run homeless shelter will soon operate around the clock, meaning people who spend the night won’t be forced onto the streets in the morning.
Men and women who stay at the Oxford Street Shelter now have to collect their things and clear out by 7:45 a.m. Many congregate in the area, fueling residents and business owners’ longstanding frustrations with the concentration of homelessness and attendant social issues in west Bayside.
In the coming weeks, however, the city will begin keeping the shelter open 24 hours a day and providing people who sleep there with a place to take shelter and store their belongings.
The shift to around-the-clock operations comes as the weather cools, making sleeping outside less feasible, and as development continues to drive changes in Bayside. It is the city’s latest effort to improve the neighborhood for residents, with and without permanent homes, and will be rolled out ahead of a plan to replace the outmoded Oxford Street facility in the coming years.
“We’re changing our operations to address a critical need in our city,” City Manager Jon Jennings said. “Our goal is to provide our most vulnerable citizens with the option to remain in a safe place during the day with their belongings, which will improve their quality of life as well as the downtown area and surrounding community.”
The city will also install lockers in the shelter and set up a portable bathroom next to it. These changes will come online as soon as the city is able to purchase the amenities and hire the additional staff needed to keep the shelter open all day, a city spokeswoman said.
City staff now keep the 154-bed Oxford Street Shelter open 14 hours a day during the week and 19 hours a day on weekends.
Staffing up for all-day operations will cost the city roughly $340,000 through the end of the fiscal year, according to spokeswoman Jessica Grondin, who said this outlay was made possible by salary savings over the last year. In coming years, this expense will be part of the annual budget, which must be approved by the City Council.
This funding will also allow the city to hire another “outreach worker,” to help homeless people find housing and encourage those living outdoors to take shelter in the public facility.
Steve Hirshon, the outgoing president of the Bayside Neighborhood Association, welcomed the city’s move to keep the shelter open all day, saying it would let “a lot of people live in a little less chaotic situation.”
The extended operations will also help city staff “learn what works and what doesn’t” before they open a new homeless shelter, Hirshon said.
Extending hours at Oxford Street may serve as a band aid, but the city’s long-term plan is to replace the three-story shelter with a new facility to serve Portland’s homeless population, which has swelled in recent decades even as privately run shelters closed.
“We know this isn’t a perfect solution, but it will go a long way toward improving the quality of life for our shelter guests and the surrounding community,” City Councilor Belinda Ray, chairwoman of the Council’s health and human services committee, said in a statement.
The city recently unveiled plans for a one-story, 200-bed shelter that officials say will be less expensive to run and offer a greater array of services to homeless Portlanders.
The city has not yet selected a location for the new shelter, but over the summer the City Council approved regulatory changes that would allow a shelter in light industrial zones throughout the city.
This change opens the possibility of placing a new facility off the peninsula and comes with the condition that any new shelter must be located within a half mile of a public transit line.
The City Council’s health and human services committee is scheduled to meet and discuss the new shelter at 5:30 p.m. Tuesday in the State of Maine Room on the second floor of City Hall.
Follow Jake Bleiberg at @JZBleiberg.
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