Aaron Geyer inside Portland's Oxford Street Shelter. Credit: Nora Flaherty | Maine Public

In the 1980s, Portland’s then city manager made a commitment that the city would “do its part” to make sure no one seeking shelter in Portland would be turned away. But in the decades since then, it has remained controversial.

Now, as Portland gets ready to replace its longtime emergency homeless shelter, some people want to put a cap on the number of people the new facility will serve. They said it will save the city money and make future planning less complicated, and that it’s a way to get other cities and towns in Maine to take responsibility for the services Portland’s providing for people from all over the state.

But others say it won’t work — and that it’s just not the right thing to do.

It’s early afternoon on a Friday, and the Oxford Street Shelter — Portland’s city-run emergency shelter for single adults — is busy. The sleeping areas are closed, but people are hanging out in the lobby to get out of the cold. Portland’s social service director, Aaron Geyer, said the shelter will open for check-ins in a couple hours.

“When individuals are checking in for the evening they’ll wait on the ramp outside, then come in the door three at a time … get their beds, get their blankets and sheets and any toiletries they need, and then they’re assigned a bed,” he said.

By “bed,” in many cases Geyer means a mat. Mats take up less space than cots, and the shelter, which was designed in 1989 to accommodate 50 people, is seriously overcrowded.

“The total capacity of this building is 154, that’s in a perfect world, that’s with mats — cots can reduce the capacity a bit,” he said.

The city also has 75 overflow beds at Preble Street Resource Center. That’s usually enough, and when numbers spike, like on very cold nights, there’s additional space at the city’s general assistance office.

But pretty much everyone agrees this isn’t a great solution, and for the past couple years, the city has been working on a plan to build a new shelter.

For Portland City Councilor Kim Cook, the process of building the new shelter, which will be in her district, is a good moment to look at what that long-ago commitment means today. She said yes, the city manager made a commitment back in the ’80s to open a 50-bed shelter. But these days, she said Portland is basically running a shelter for the whole state.

Cook said a majority of people who use the shelter come from other communities, and that those communities are using the service without paying their share.

“I think it’s really way past time that we take a look at what we’re doing and with what resources,” she said.

Cook said the city should give people space in warming centers so they won’t freeze to death on the coldest nights. But the only sure way to make towns, cities and the state do their part is to be firm.

“As long as the City of Portland goes forward and says, ‘We will provide without your contribution services for your residents and for residents across the state and beyond,’ we are not going to have any luck and getting others to come to the table,” she said.

“When you contemplate setting a cap, it’s about the message it sends … so I understand wanting to have maybe those teeth in the policy,” City Councilor Belinda Ray said.

Ray said a cap really is not a good idea right now. She chairs the Health and Human Services and Public Safety Committee, which is leading the planning for the new shelter. She said this is a more collaborative moment in local, regional and state governance, and the city should take advantage of that.

Ray says Gov. Janet Mills is much more engaged with addressing homelessness than was Gov. Paul LePage, and that the city is also working with regional bodies on the issue. And she said other local governments may be more receptive to cost-sharing if it’s a collaborative conversation and not a demand.

“That’s how we can have these conversations, when people aren’t back on their heels and feeling defensive, they’re much more able to take in the big concepts and find a way to pitch in,” she said.

She said the argument that Cook and others make, that capping the number of homeless people the shelter serves would save money, just isn’t accurate. The city budget allocated $1.75 million for the shelter for the 2019 fiscal year, and Ray said the cost of sheltering people is significantly lower than the costs associated with having an unsheltered homeless population.

“It is cheaper for Portland to house people than it is to have them sleeping on the street and taking advantage of emergency services,” she said. “Studies show that caring for people is less expensive. There are studies that have shown this in the past.”

Both Cook and Ray make the point that no one wants more people sleeping in the street, or large homeless encampments. And they tend to focus their arguments on the practicalities of homeless services as they fit into the larger picture of city management. But for some people who work with Portland’s homeless, this is a moral issue.

“If we’re setting a cap then we’re saying that there is a number that we can fulfill, but not our right to shelter. And what we believe is that having access to emergency shelter is a human right,” Heather Zimmerman, advocacy director at the social services agency Preble Street, said.

Zimmerman said that whether or not it would ultimately be effective, using the idea of a cap to get other communities to do more is unethical.

“We do not believe that a cap is a policy leverage to increase state or other municipality support. What a cap would do is have a direct and punishing harmful impact on the people who need access to shelter and are most vulnerable, because they would force those people to perhaps go without shelter, staying out on the street or in other places that are unfit for human habitation,” she said.

Those who want the new shelter to have a larger capacity say that as the city’s homeless population declines — which they hope it will as Portland continues its work on permanently housing people — it can contract.

Those who want a lower cap say it will put pressure on Portland to step up its efforts, and on other communities to do their part.

But either way, it’s going to be a couple years. The full city council will vote on the policy goals for the shelter in February, and Ray estimates that the new shelter won’t be ready until late 2021, or early 2022.

This article appears through a media partnership with Maine Public.