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Portland narrowly defeats proposal to add beds to city homeless shelter

The Portland City Council narrowly defeated a measure that would have expanded capacity at the city's Homeless Services Center.

Under the proposal, the city would have declared a temporary state of emergency so that it could add 50 additional beds to the homeless shelter on the city's outskirts. But the measure failed Monday night by a 4-5 vote.

The debate came one week after a similar measure that would have added 150 beds to the shelter was also met with criticism from community advocates, Portland residents and some city councilors.

Much of Monday night's discussion centered around similar themes. Some saw the proposal as a good first step for the city to address a growing crisis, while others viewed it as the wrong approach at the wrong time.

Mayor Kate Snyder said she saw the measure as a temporary solution that would shelter more people ahead of the cold winter months. She pointed to a seven-step plan from the non-profit advocacy group Preble Street, which identified a need for more shelter capacity, on top of adding more municipal outreach staff, housing vouchers and mental health and substance use disorder resources.

"My belief is that this is one step and we need more," said Snyder, who voted in favor of the emergency order.

City Councilor Roberto Rodriguez agreed.

"I don't think this has been sold as this the solution to all our big systemic problems. Quite the opposite," he said. "It's been presented as this is the least we can do."

But others, including City Councilor Anna Trevorrow, said that Portland first needed to fix the concerns about the shelter that unhoused people have shared. Shelter rules about couples, pets and storage are among the barriers that unhoused residents and community advocates have said are deterring people from accepting an available bed.

"If they're not going there now, what is adding 50 beds going to do?" Trevorrow said.

Bob Avery, an outreach worker for Preble Street, said the city should only expand shelter capacity unless it has a specific plan to address the concerns that unhoused people have about the shelter.

"Barriers to accessing the Homeless Services Center is an issue that is further aggravating the unsheltered crisis we are facing," Avery said. "Our fear is that if the emergency order does not include specific language about addressing these barriers, any additional capacity that is created will be under-utilized."

And he urged the city to postpone any plans to remove tent encampments until the new shelter for asylum seekers opens later this fall, so that Portland and social services staff can facilitate the movement of unhoused people into the Homeless Services Center.

"We feel that moving large numbers of people into shelter in a short period of time is best done with intentional planning and structure," he added.

Eammon Dundon of the Portland Regional Chamber of Commerce argued that the emergency order seemed like the best available solution. He suggested that the decision to sweep Portland's largest tent encampment, located on Marginal Way on state property, would be a decision left to the governor and Maine's Department of Transportation, not city officials.

"What you will be faced with then is an emergency situation," he said. "So do you want to have a plan in place at that time that at least has a place where people can go? Or do you want to be scrambling?"

But City Councilor Victoria Pelletier said that Portland should be making an investment in the city's unhoused population and their needs. The temporary order, she said, doesn't amount to such an investment.

"If we increase the shelter from 208 beds to 258 beds, I just don't see how that's a long term solution to amending our unhoused crisis or making our unhoused community feel like we are with them," Pelletier said.

It's unclear what, if any, steps city councilors will take next to address homelessness, at least before the November election.