Portland staff are recommending building a new homeless shelter on Brighton Avenue, adjacent to a city-run nursing and rehabilitation center and near the Westbrook city line.
The proposed 200-bed facility — which will offer an array of on-site services including meals, mental health and substance-use counseling, and medical care — is meant to replace the cramped Oxford Street Shelter that has been the center of rising tension in Portland’s troubled Bayside neighborhood.
The recommendation to place the two-floor shelter and service hub at the corner of Brighton and Holm avenues, next to The Barron Center, follows a yearlong survey that weighed a number of possible sites with a focus on their safety and accessibility by public transportation, city staff said Thursday.
City Manager Jon Jennings called the multimillion-dollar proposal a “game changer.” He said that the new center, miles from Portland’s downtown, will serve people without homes better than the current concentration of services along a few blocks in west Bayside.
“The aggregation of all of those social services in one area doesn’t work, and that’s proven itself over a decade on Oxford Street,” Jennings said. “We’ve isolated our most vulnerable people in one of the worst neighborhoods.”
Currently the state’s largest homeless shelter, the city-owned house on Oxford Street now makes room for more than 150 people a night by having them sleep on mats placed inches apart on the shelter floor. But the facility is regularly overrun, and the nearby Preble Street Resource Center routinely opens its doors to give more people a place to sleep off the streets.
Over the years, as other shelters around Portland closed, the city’s populations of homeless people and those suffering from addiction have become increasingly concentrated in the 2½-block stretch between the Preble Street Center and the Oxford Street Shelter. And the neighborhood accounts to a hugely disproportionate number of police calls for service.
Late Thursday afternoon, two police cruisers zipped to a halt in front of the entrance to Preble Street’s soup kitchen. A small group had gathered around a man and woman having an argument, but they began to wander off at the sight of the flashing lights.
Thomas Hill, 38, lingered after the crowd had gone. He said he’s been living in the area and sleeping at the Oxford Street Shelter for the past four months, since his girlfriend died.
Different people will react to the shelter moving in different ways, Hill said: Some will be eager to leave and others have grown attached to the area over years spent on the blocks between the shelter and soup kitchen. Hill said he’d welcome more breathing room, wherever it’s located.
“We sleep like this,” he said, holding his hands up to his eyes a few inches apart. “You got people coughing right in your face.”
The director of the Oxford Street Shelter, Rob Parritt, said the city is going to be careful to avoid past mistakes in developing the new center.
“What we’re not going to do is just replicate what we did on Oxford Street and plop it into a neighborhood,” Parritt said. “We have no interest in replicating what we see now.”
Last year, after the city changed its zoning to allow an emergency shelter to be opened outside of the downtown, there was worry that moving the shelter to the city’s outskirts would isolate people trying to find homes.
For Mayor Ethan Strimling, these worries persist.
“It’s no secret that I have concerns about a shelter being on the outskirts of town,” he said, adding that his mind isn’t made up and that he’s looking forward to learning more about why city staff chose this location. “We have to make sure this is the best site.”
Parritt said the city would continue to offer people at the proposed shelter, which sits on a regular bus line, METRO tickets on a case-by-case basis, as well as formalize and expand a shuttle service that it informally operates at Oxford Street. The new site would also shift vulnerable people to a safer area, he said.
“Now, folks are forced to exist in a two-block area where they are preyed upon by drug dealers, bad actors and human traffickers,” Parritt said. “We’re forcing people to run a gauntlet just to eat.”
The proposal appears to have won support from some organizations that help people struggling with homelessness and addiction, but Preble Street is approaching it carefully.
Mark Swann, the aid organization’s longtime executive director, praised Jennings for acting on the need for a larger, 24-hour shelter, calling the new facility a “once-in-25-years opportunity.” But the group is waiting to get more information about the proposal and “hear what [its] clients think of the location.”
“While a new site is certainly of critical importance, so too is the service delivery model, its accessibility, the safety of those accessing services, and the resources the city is ready to commit on an ongoing basis,“ Swann said in a written statement.
After its formal presentation later this month, the public will have a chance to ask questions about the proposed site at a July 10 meeting of the City Council’s health and human services committee.
Jennings said that if everything goes smoothly the city could be breaking ground on the new facility by February or March of 2019. There are, however, a number of issues still to be resolved — notably, funding.
The new shelter was originally billed at roughly $10 million, though Jennings said the proposed site would come with a lower price tag because the land is already owned by the city. The manager said he envisions financing the project as partnership with a private organization but was not prepared to say which groups are being considered.
The city previously estimated that the new facility would allow it to save about $500,000 from the Oxford Street shelter’s $3.5 million annual budget.
Building a shelter at the proposed site would also require the City Council to approve another zoning change. “Ironically, when we did all that zoning changes, we didn’t think of this location,” Jennings said.
The manager said he’s prepared to use his full powers under the City Charter to move the process ahead in a timely fashion.
“I do consider this an emergency situation,” he said.
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