Portland Officials, Residents Clash Over Proposed Emergency Homeless Shelter

Oct 21, 2020

A proposal for a 40-bed emergency homeless shelter in Portland brought out fierce debate at a city planning meeting Tuesday night.

If approved, homeless service provider Preble Street would repurpose its resource center in the city’s Bayside Neighborhood as an emergency homeless shelter, which administrators say would provide needed beds for unsheltered residents as winter approaches.

Deputy Director Donna Yellen says the new shelter would offer more space and access to social services for clients — a strategy modeled on a temporary wellness shelter that the agency operated this summer at a gymnasium at the University of Southern Maine.

“People can access their beds anytime they want,” Yellen says. “And then also, what happened, is it minimized behavioral problems. So people would go off to their bed, laid down, and we had so many fewer behavioral issues.”

Public comment at Tuesday’s meeting was fiercely divided. Several neighbors and neighborhood groups pushed back, saying that Preble Street hasn’t adequately addressed years of complaints about drug use, litter and theft in the community.

“Preble Street should give full consideration to selling, and no credibility should be given to the proposed management plan based on the abysmal record in addressing the impacts raised by neighbors in Bayside,” said Anne Pringle, with the group Friends of Deering Oaks.

Ted Kelleher, an attorney representing Preble Street, said that with far fewer guests and more private outdoor space, issues like noise and litter should decrease under the proposed plan.

“Soup kitchen operations will stop, so we won’t have clients eating outside,” Kelleher said. “Any of the clients of the emergency shelter, any eating will be done in the confines of the shelter or the courtyard. And simply a reduction in the number of visitors, from around 700 a day to 40, plus staff and volunteers, I think, is absolutely going to result in less noise and less litter in the neighborhood.”

Several local advocates, unhoused residents and groups including Maine Equal Justice also supported the project, saying that Preble Street has been an important community partner for decades and that the project would help address a critical need.

The proposal comes as Portland attempts to secure enough shelter space for homeless residents this winter. Earlier this week, city staff said they were close to finalizing plans to use a county corrections center and a local hotel as overflow shelters. A city spokesperson says with the additional spaces, the city should have more beds available this winter than it has in past years.

Portland’s planning board didn’t vote on the project on Tuesday night, but councilors had significant questions and requested more input from city staff and police.

Preble Street says it wants to begin work on the project as soon as possible, and staff say they hope to complete it within a few months, following approval.