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Portland approves plan for new shelter in Bayside
Preble Street’s plan calls for as many as 40 beds, 8 feet apart to comply with COVID-19 guidelines, with meals and other services on site.
The Portland Planning Board voted unanimously Tuesday night to approve Preble Street’s request to convert its former resource center in the city’s Bayside neighborhood into a 40-bed emergency shelter.
The board heard more than two and a half hours of public comment and received hundreds of emails, mostly in support of the proposed shelter at 5 Portland St. The board held two workshops leading up to Tuesday’s meeting, with most of the concerns centering around a management plan to address neighborhood concerns.
Edward Kelleher, an attorney representing Preble Street, said the nonprofit social service agency’s application and management plan had been strengthened throughout the process to address concerns raised by staff, councilors and neighborhood residents.
“We quite clearly meet every criteria,” Kelleher said.
Planning board members agreed. Chairman Brandon Mazer acknowledged that the process took longer than supporters would have liked.
“It may have been slower than people wish – big picture – but it shows the process worked,” Mazer said. “What we got out of this was a much better product.”
Plans call for up to 40 beds, which would be spaced 8 feet apart to comply with COVID-19 guidelines. Meals and other services will be provided on site. And the outdoor courtyard would be closed off from the street with a 6-foot-tall fence and only be accessible to people staying at the shelter.
Preble Street’s Resource Center had been a fixture in Portland’s Bayside neighborhood for three decades. But in recent years Preble Street had been considering changes, reducing hours and at one point entered into discussions with the city to take over the space for a shelter.
When the coronavirus hit in March, Preble Street closed the center, as well as indoor dining at the soup kitchen, which transitioned to preparing meals for off-site consumption. The nonprofit ran a temporary wellness center at the University of Southern Maine from April to July, when the Sullivan Gym was reclaimed for university uses.
Preble Street Executive Director Mark Swann said running the USM wellness shelter taught the organization a valuable lesson – that smaller, 24-hour shelters are a better model than large shelters.
“We have zero intention frankly of trying to cram more people into these spaces,” he said. “The lessons we have learned over the last several months will last and they should.”
The shelter proposal has faced opposition from neighborhood residents, who cited a lack of cooperation on Preble Street’s part in addressing neighborhood concerns in the past. They also contend that locating an additional shelter in Bayside is contrary to the city’s efforts to break-up the cluster of social services in that area.
Those calls, however, have been met with a deluge from Preble Street supporters, who have been urging the city to fast-track the approval to create additional shelter space during the cold winter months. Supporters stress that the nonprofit is not seeking any city money for the shelter.
Preble Street’s application is the first to come forward under the city’s new rules for shelters. One of those new rules is for the applicant to provide a management plan to address certain aspects of operations, including addressing neighborhood concerns.
Preble Street’s plan calls for periodic neighborhood meetings and a commitment to attend at least 75 percent of the Bayside Neighborhood Association’s meetings. Clients will have to sign “services expectations agreement” outlining behavioral expectations and will conduct periodic sweeps of the perimeter to prevent loitering by people who are not clients.
Additionally, Preble Street agreed to provide a 24-hour number for residents to call with concerns. The nonprofit will log those calls and follow-up with the caller to explain how the issue was handled. And an advisory group will be established to review the process.
City Planner Andrew Tufts said that over the course of two workshops Preble Street had revised its plan to address concerns raised by staff and board members.
“Following the review and assessment of these conditional-use assessments, staff finds the applicant has satisfied these standards,” Tufts said.
The vast majority of public comments on Tuesday were in support of the proposal. And even Bayside residents testified both in support and opposition to the proposal.
Opponents acknowledged Preble Street’s efforts to address their concerns, but they noted that the City Council’s Health and Humans Services Committee has been working on a licensing program for shelters. A couple residents urged the board to either wait until that process is complete, or make their approval subject to that licensing system, once approved, so there could be a way to hold the nonprofit accountable.
“The management plan has improved a lot, but it’s still very tough to trust that the applicant will follow through on its promises,” said Sarah Michniewicz, president of the Bayside Neighborhood Association. “Beyond the improvements, there’s no means of enforcing it.”
Planning Board member Brandon Mazer said the board was limited in what it could do, including delaying a vote to wait for a licensing program that may never materialize or instituting a probationary approval.
But the vast majority of the public comments – including those from people currently experiencing homelessness – urged a swift approval. They said many people are not able to access the city’s Oxford Street Shelter because of criminal trespass orders.
A woman who only gave her first name, Kimberly, said she usually sleeps outside in a tent, but was staying at a friend’s for the night because of the cold and snow. She pointed to the number of deaths in the homeless community – 64 people in 2020, according to Preble Street – and said she personally knew of 15 people who had died.
“This would be such a benefit to Portland that people don’t realize,” she said. “People are out there dying on the streets … This would help so many people and give them a better life. This needs to be done.”
Preble Street Deputy Director Donna Yellen said the nonprofit has entered into an agreement with the city to focus on sheltering people who cannot access shelter services elsewhere, whether because of a criminal trespass order or other reason. “It would be a process where we’re taking referrals from them,” she said.
Caitlin Corrigan, director of health services at Preble Street, said the Maine Medical Center Learning Collaborative, which provides medical services to the homeless, is currently serving 80-90 people a day, many of whom are unsheltered.
“There are dozens of people who are not being served by the current shelter system,” Corrigan said. “Many of these folks desperately want relief from the elements but they don’t want to go to a shelter that is not trauma-informed.”
Portland resident Paul Scofield said he’s been volunteering at Preble Street since the pandemic began and that his eyes were opened to both the dire need for additional shelter beds and the great work being done by the social service nonprofit. He said homelessness is a large and complex issue that cannot be addressed by one shelter, but Preble Street’s plan is a step in the right direction.
“Here you have the opportunity to house 40 people who otherwise wouldn’t have a roof over their heads,” Scofield said. “It’s not that often you get an opportunity like that, so I really hope you take that opportunity.”
In the fall, Swann said that it would take six to eight weeks to renovate into a new shelter, once approvals are in hand.
Preble Street operates a teen shelter, a woman’s shelter and staffs several housing first facilities.
The city, meanwhile, operates the 175-bed Oxford Street Shelter for single adults, but has had to cut its capacity in half because of COVID-19. The city used the Portland Expo as a temporary shelter until October to increase shelter access. The city shelter has been providing 24 hour access since 2017. And the city has been working with the state to secure additional hotel rooms for both families and single adults seeking shelter.