PORTLAND, Maine — Another shelter will soon be available for those battling homelessness in Maine’s largest city.
On Tuesday night, the planning board unanimously approved a proposal by Preble Street, a nonprofit social services agency, to renovate its existing facility in the Bayside neighborhood to a 40-bed overnight shelter for people experiencing homelessness.
The go-ahead came after months of bureaucratic delay, as city staff pushed the agency to address many preconditions for the project as city councilors sought to draft new licensing conditions for the project. Preble Street officials hope to have the shelter ready in March.
“We’ve heard the building permit process can take anywhere from two weeks to three months. We’re going to push forward as quickly as possible to expedite that process and then construction will take 6-8 weeks,” spokesperson Dan D’Ippolito said.
The city received nearly 1,100 emails from supporters of the proposal since October, with many reinforcing that support during Tuesday night’s planning board meeting. Dozens of property owners in the Bayside neighborhood voiced opposition to the project, accusing Preble Street of not doing enough to check the behavior of people seeking services in the area.
The agency will uphold a prior agreement with Portland police to share security camera recordings with police conducting criminal investigations. In December, police requested a tighter security plan that would have given them “unfettered access” to real-time security camera recordings of the area maintained by Preble Street.
The shelter’s design will observe social distancing to prevent the spread of COVID-19, spreading beds 8 feet apart. The inner courtyard area surrounding the shelter will be encased by a fence, and the agency will enforce a 9 p.m. check-in curfew.
Preble Street has also agreed to attend 75 percent of Bayside Neighborhood Association meetings and provide data on length of stay and criminal trespass orders in monthly reports, according to Edward Kelleher, the nonprofit’s attorney.
“I think we quite clearly meet each and every criteria” that govern emergency shelters, Kelleher said.
At least 64 people experiencing homelessness in Portland died in 2020, according to Preble Street. That figure is a 60 percent increase over the average number of deaths the previous five years.
Olivia Orr, who lives in Bayside, supported the proposal, adding that Portland’s homeless crisis was the result of a number of systemic societal issues that a new shelter couldn’t solve.
“But what it will do is provide 40 people with a warm place to sleep and access essential services,” Orr said.