September 21, 2019
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Portland won’t pursue construction of shelter at controversial site after local outcry

Troy R. Bennett | BDN
Troy R. Bennett | BDN
Portland’s existing city-run shelter on Oxford Street is currently the largest emergency shelter in Maine. It makes room for more than 150 people a night by having them sleep on mats placed inches apart on the shelter floor.

Portland officials have discarded a plan to build a large, new homeless shelter next to a city-run nursing center near the Westbrook city line, after months of pushback from area residents and broad debate over whether the proposal would best serve the city’s homeless population.

On Tuesday, City Manager Jon Jennings told the City Council committee evaluating proposals to replace Portland’s city-run shelter that staff would not support placing a 150-bed facility next to The Barron Center on Brighton Avenue.

Jennings’ announcement came before the Health and Human Services and Public Safety Committee endorsed a plan to replace the aging and cramped Oxford Street Shelter with a single city-run shelter. The committee voted unanimously to support a 150-bed shelter, as well as potential partnerships with local nonprofits for other smaller facilities.

“If the committee feels as though this is the appropriate model to pursue … we as staff no longer believe that the Barron Center is the appropriate location for the emergency shelter or the homeless service center,” Jennings said.

[Portland may build state’s largest homeless shelter miles from downtown]

Councilor Belinda Ray, the committee chair, said Thursday that she’s pleased with the vote and that the process of replacing the shelter that’s operated in Bayside for decades is moving forward. But many details of this new plan, including where a shelter would be built, are yet to be settled.

Councilor Brian Batson, a committee member who represents the district where the shelter had been proposed, said in a statement that the decision against putting a new shelter next to the Barron Center was “incredible step in the right direction.”

The meeting came five months after Jennings’ announced a plan to build a 200-bed shelter and service center near the Barron Center, calling the proposal a “game changer.”

Portland’s existing city-run shelter on Oxford Street is currently the largest emergency shelter in Maine. It makes room for more than 150 people a night by having them sleep on mats placed inches apart on the shelter floor.

[No easy fix for Portland neighborhood with ‘every problem imaginable’]

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 for a hugely disproportionate number of police calls for service.

In June, Jennings said he’d use his full powers under the City Charter to address this “emergency situation” and that he hoped to break ground on a new shelter as early as February. It is now unlikely that the city will have selected a site by that time.

Ray said that her committee with “begin delving” into the issue of location at a late January meeting.

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