PORTLAND, Maine — A neighborhood group’s goal to expel homeless shelters and those who need them from Portland’s most eminently developable neighborhood gained a foothold Monday night.
In a 6-3 vote capping off a five-hour meeting, Portland’s city council passed a moratorium that prohibits new shelters from being built in the Bayside neighborhood for six months.
Voting with the majority, Councilor Tae Chong wanted to clear up misconceptions about the moratorium right out of the gate.
“We are in no way shutting down any shelters whatsoever,” Chong said. “It’s only new construction or new renovations to emergency shelters.”
The vote marked a big win for those with stakes in the area. The Bayside Neighborhood Association, a group of a dozen or so property owners in the rapidly developing neighborhood, has lobbied hard to rid Bayside of homeless shelters. Sarah Michniewicz and Jim Hall, the president and treasurer of the neighborhood association, have led a relentless public awareness campaign to convince city officials that homeless services have a harmful effect on the neighborhood.
To the duo, who are married and own a house on Cedar Street, Bayside suffers from a “lack of equity” relative to other parts of the city. The concentration of resource centers in the area, like the nonprofit Preble Street and the city-run Oxford Street Shelter, has led to a concentration of homeless people, they argue. That has caused disturbances and increased calls for police services.
Their framework has been persuasive to councilors Tae Chong and Belinda Ray, the current and former chair of the health and human services committee. The councilors echoed similar sentiments in their own arguments Monday night, stressing the need to correct the “burden“ on wealthy property owners in the up-and-coming neighborhood.
“Let’s give this small part of Portland, this one percent of the entire land mass, a break,” Chong said Monday. “Let’s make sure we have a standard that’s equitable for them.”
It rarely comes up in meetings, but Bayside is one of the city’s final frontiers. Private developers have long eyed the neighborhood as one they can reboot and rebrand for thrilling profits. Owners of Bayside homes have largely not seen skyrocketing property values or reaped the short-term rental profits that Portland homeowners in other neighborhoods have.
City officials worked out a plan for Bayside in 2000, calling the neighborhood “a vital social service network” where “homeless shelters and related services will remain.” It seems consistent with that plan that a majority of the city’s shelter beds are concentrated in the Bayside neighborhood. And because Portland is the economic center of the state, with the most social services, the neighborhood draws a disproportionate number of Maine’s total population of people experiencing homelessness.
People travel to economic centers regardless of their class because that’s where the opportunities are, said Nan Roman, executive director of the National Alliance to End Homelessness, a D.C.-based advocacy group. In general, higher-income or gentrifying neighborhoods tend to want to limit or reduce the number of social service facilities and have the wherewithal and connections to keep shelters out.
Unhoused people and those in the social service agencies broadly opposed the moratorium. Frank d’Alessandro, policy director of the legal civil aid nonprofit Maine Equal Justice, called it “illegal discrimination” that “seemed to have a specific intent to keep protected classes from residing in certain areas of the city.”
It’s “as if we should avoid the harm caused by shelters as if shelters caused the problem of homelessness rather than addressed it,” said Rebecca Hobbs, executive director of Through These Doors, an emergency shelter for people fleeing domestic violence.
Hobbs’ organization would not be affected by the moratorium, but she viewed it with “disappointment, even indignation,” and lashed out at what she saw was biased language in its language.
“One does not hear that ‘concentrating’ wealthy people in a neighborhood is a problem in Portland, or that ‘concentrating’ white people is a problem,” Hobbs said.
John Wray, a 60-year-old Portland man who has used the Bayside shelters, saw it as a step toward the long-term goal of pushing shelters out of the neighborhood, which he opposed.
“If you move them to where we can’t get to them, then what do we do?” Wray asked, adding that having to travel long distances between service providers and shelters could lead to him being targeted “for racism or for being a homeless person.”
While not immediately impactful, the new policy could be a move in a larger chess match. The city wants to move its Oxford Street Shelter, an overnight facility in an antiquated building, out of Bayside, settling on Portland-based Developers Collaborative to build a full-service shelter as a public-private partnership on the outskirts of town.
But a nascent citizens’ initiative has emerged, rejecting the large shelter approach in favor of a network of smaller homeless shelters at accessible locations around the city. That group, led by a cohort of unhoused people and allies called Smaller Shelters for Portland Coalition, plans to submit signatures in July to pose the choice on the November ballot.
Swiftly passing policies like Monday night’s moratorium could be a tool the council uses to limit such efforts. A smaller-shelter plan decided by popular vote could be minimized if officials pass certain restrictive policies before the referendum vote, such as the Bayside moratorium and shelter licensing requirements. Such policies could also set precedent that would encourage other neighborhoods to follow suit, and it’s always easier to renew a policy already on the books than pass it in the first place.
That’s how Laura Underkuffler, a Bayside homeowner who pushed for the moratorium, sees it too.
“The moratorium is a first step toward the City achieving control of the situation in Bayside,” Underkuffler, who teaches property law at Cornell University, wrote in a public comment. “The next step will be crafting licensing regulations.”
With similar urgency, officials will renew the effort to draft license requirements for shelters this week, Councilor Chong said. They are broadly opposed by those who work in social services.
For Councilor Andrew Zarro, who voted against the measure, the nature of the emergency is a matter of perspective.
“Yes, I think there’s an emergency,” Zarro said Monday. “I think the emergency is homelessness.”
Zarro pressed the city’s Director of Health and Human Services Kristen Dow on why a measure that has no immediate impacts would be so aggressively pushed by its advocates.
“I heard people say tonight that they need ‘a break’ or ‘breathing room’ [from unhoused people],” Zarro said. “In your professional opinion, do we have reason to believe that this would bring immediate relief?”
Not exactly, came the reply.
“I don’t believe there would be an immediate relief provided with the shelter moratorium,” Dow said. “This [policy] would be for the future.”