The Cumberland County Jail. Credit: CBS 13

PORTLAND, Maine — Officials are nearing an agreement to shelter homeless people in the Cumberland County Corrections complex this winter. The community corrections center site is an offshoot of the jail that houses low-security inmates.

County manager Jim Gailey described the facility as a “college dorm-style building.” The two-story building contains 44 single-person bedrooms, a kitchen and day-room areas, as well as a fenced-in backyard with basketball hoop.

While it bears the same address, the building is separate from the jail and will not be staffed by corrections officers. 

It “will be returned to low-security inmates next summer after the agreement with Portland ends,” Gailey said.

City officials have eyed temporary shelter options to replace the Portland Exposition Building, which has been used alongside the city’s Oxford Street Shelter during the pandemic after opening as an emergency quarantine shelter in late March.

But the Expo hall must be vacated by Sunday so the Maine Red Claws, a G-league basketball team, can play its season there. The corrections center facility was chosen partly because of its proximity to the Expo, according to city spokesperson Jessica Grondin.

A proposal to use the Cross Insurance Arena, which Portland voters buoyed with $33 million in renovations in 2011, was shot down by arena trustees and county commissioners, who felt that use of the facility brought a “host of challenges and that a better option should be explored,” according to Gailey. The arena, formerly known as the Cumberland County Civic Center, plans to install ice for the Maine Mariners hockey team’s season in November and is currently being used to conduct socially distanced Zumba classes. 

The city is searching for options to keep its growing unhoused population off the streets and socially distanced to observe COVID-19 prevention guidelines during the cold-weather months. 

Use of the jail facility would bolster the number of shelter beds for people experiencing homelessness in the city by from 244 to 274, according to Grondin. Portland expects to use the space beginning next week through the end of April, sheltering up to 50 people at no additional cost. A former gym in the jail complex had once been used to shelter people experiencing homelessness long ago but the practice was discontinued in 1987.

A bed inside a Cumberland County corrections building used for low-security inmates. The city is nearing an agreement that would repurpose the facility to shelter unhoused people during the winter. Credit: Courtesy of Cumberland County Correction Center

Fewer beds are available at Portland’s Oxford Street Shelter because of coronavirus restrictions. The city has maintained 75 sleeping mats at the shelter and Portland Expo — half its typical capacity — with additional beds at its family shelter on Chestnut Street. It’s also housing some people at area motels.

City shelter beds have not been filled to capacity over the past several months since the COVID-19 outbreak, officials say, even as the need for more temporary housing grows. 

That’s because the city capped capacity at its shelters in April to all but 608 individuals and wouldn’t take new residents, as part of a state of emergency that was extended until January by Mayor Kate Snyder on Monday night.

As of September, the city had active criminal trespass orders against 85 people from its Oxford Street Shelter, banning them from the premises and restricting them from seeking overnight services there for one year.

Many without shelter set up camps in Deering Oaks Park this summer, in part due to pandemic-related closures at the Preble Street Resource Center. Preble Street has lobbied the city for months to turn the site of its resource center to a 24/7 wellness shelter that would offer services similar to what the agency provided at a temporary shelter at the University of Southern Maine campus gym this summer.

The proposal is on the Tuesday agenda of the Portland Planning Board and would provide another 40 or so beds.

The city is also close to finalizing a contract with an area hotel to provide beds for up to 149 individuals as needed, using a model deployed by a Bangor hotel earlier this month. Those beds will be funded by MaineHousing, according to Grondin.

Councilor Tae Chong said in last week’s committee meeting that the city has a “full wraparound process” to find permanent housing for people staying in hotels.

“We know that in the winter months we need to have additional space,” Director of Health and Human Services Kristen Dow said at a committee meeting last week. “It’s not uncommon for us to [shelter] around 200 individuals or so.”

The temporary arrangements are intended to bridge the gap to a more permanent homeless services center, Dow said. The city is still looking to develop that site in the Riverside neighborhood, which has needed redesign considerations since the implementation of pandemic guidelines.

Correction: An earlier version of this report misstated the neighborhood where Portland’s proposed homeless services center would be located.