The BNA has spent years advocating for improved services for people who are homeless and at risk, and for the safety and civility of our community. These goals go hand in hand.
The recently announced plan to locate a new homeless services center on the Barron Center campus is the latest step undertaken by the City of Portland to address the concerns of Baysiders, service providers, and those who need these services.
This change is, quite reasonably, raising concerns across the city, and many people are on a steep learning curve to understanding both the current situation and the plans for change, both of which have been years in the making. We hope you find the following digest and links helpful.
- Bayside hosts several shelters and service providers. One of them is going to close.
Zoom into this Google map and look around, and you’ll find the City of Portland Oxford Street Shelter, the City of Portland Family Shelter, the Preble Street Joe Kreisler Teen Shelter, the Preble Street Resource Center, the Portland Social Services Department, and numerous other social services provided by organizations such as Goodwill, Salvation Army, and local and regional providers. When the new facility opens, the Oxford Street Shelter is going to close.
- We have a situation. We need a system.
“Everyone agrees the situation needs to change” is a common refrain from all quarters: service providers, politicians, city officials and staff, police officers, healthcare workers, business owners, homeowners, renters, currently homeless people and previously homeless people. The social ills of Bayside and Portland are not a result of “the shelter” or “the homeless.” They are the result of a Frankenstein-like hodgepodge of services which have become overwhelmed by the opioid crisis and federal and state budget cuts, and exploited by criminal predators. Shelter stayers have to walk here and there just to get a meal, through a gauntlet of risks and often with all of their belongings. A modern, dedicated facility in a new location will provide the resources that homeless people and service providers deserve, and disrupt entrenched patterns and habits that contribute to the undereffective and dangerous situation we have now.
- The city and many other stakeholders have been working on this for a while.
Back in 2012, a dedicated task force spent a year focused on homelessness and related issues, producing this Strategic Plan. The plan involves much more than a shelter, but on that topic, the recommendation is “a centralized intake process through which all clients who are homeless would be assessed…for diversion to housing, other specialized shelters or other housing situations…co-locating all service delivery partners within this centralized intake…” The new service center will benefit from the recommendations in this plan, plus additional extensive research done in the years since.
- The new facility will be nothing like the old facility.
The Oxford Street Shelter is basically a multifamily house, on a residential street. It doesn’t even have its own driveway. It doesn’t serve food or have laundry facilities. When it opened in 1989, it had 50 shelter beds. It currently serves around 150 people at a time, in a space that wasn’t designed as a shelter. The new facility, no matter where it is built, will be designed for its intended use and based on current best practices.
- The rules for running an emergency shelter have changed.
In June of 2017, the conditional use standards for emergency shelters were amended. Previously, there were two conditions: the facility had to comply with the city’s Comprehensive Housing Assistance Plan and be registered with the City. Now, all emergency shelters are required to have a Management Plan that outlines “Management responsibilities; Process for resolving neighborhood concerns; Staffing; Access restrictions; On-site surveillance; Safety measures; Controls for resident behavior and noise levels; and Monitoring Reports.” Also mandatory are Metro access, on-site support services, space to conduct security searches, bike storage, a screened outdoor area, and laundry, kitchen, and pantry access.
- Services will be co-located, and transportation will be available.
The benefits of on-site meals and laundry are obvious. Plans for the new facility also include “a wide range of services including: health and mental health care, substance use treatment, housing assistance, peer support, case management, employment assistance, and more.” But obviously, every provider in the region can’t be co-located, so the new plan includes a shuttle, so people can maintain relationships with providers they know. The Barron Center location is also on a major Metro line, and options like taxi vouchers and a city van will be continued.
- The city is already taking action.
Over the past year the city has budgeted for and implemented as many best practices as possible in the current location. Lockers, additional restrooms, and trained security staff have been added in response to neighborhood input. Staying open 24 hours means guests are no longer forced to leave the shelter during the day. And the Portland Opportunity Crew offers an alternative to panhandling and a path to employment.
- Siting a facility that helps the homeless is hard.
Setting aside the challenges related to stigma for a moment, any facility designed for this purpose has physical and logistical requirements that exclude many locations that might otherwise be desirable. Space is needed for beds, lockers, dining, supplies, staff offices, private conversations, computer work, group meetings and activities, and healthy outdoor space. Clear sight lines are important for the security of all. Each additional floor means expenses of stairs and elevators, plus additional logistical concerns and security staff, so a large footprint is required. Any facility serving a large number of people, whether it’s a homeless shelter or a high-end hotel, needs to consider the impact on adjacent communities. Here in Bayside, we see firsthand the results of drawing arbitrary lines for where such a facility “belongs.” Feelings of community or isolation aren’t just driven by geographic location, and location is only one of many considerations in creating an effective facility for this purpose.
- This is not “The Fix.” It’s a step.
The current crisis didn’t happen overnight, and it won’t be fixed all at once. Other steps initiated by the Strategic Plan such as the Long Term Stayers Program and new Housing First facilities have already produced positive results. Future plans include small shelter zoning and licensing, which will enable the creation of short-term housing for smaller numbers of people and specific populations such as veterans, the LGBTQ community, survivors of domestic abuse, etc. This facility does not prevent ongoing improvements; it enables them.
- We’re here for you.
Members of the BNA have been involved with these issues for years. We don’t claim to be experts, but we’ve lived much of the history and difficulty that has led to this point. We’ve spent hundreds of hours at City Hall, worked closely with the staff of the Oxford Street Shelter, and have had many hours of conversation with people who will be impacted by this change. The current situation is not sustainable, and we will not stand for it to continue, here or in any other neighborhood. Whatever your interest in this initiative, our door is open, and we encourage robust debate on this very complex topic. Given the urgency of need, it’s critical that discussion is focussed on relevant facts, not rumors or exaggerations, but we respect all points of view.
The BNA supports the new shelter redesign and relocation proposal; read our letter here. We look forward to conversations with all concerned parties. Contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit us on Facebook.
- Overview, documentation, and FAQs on the Shelter Relocation Plan
- Community Forum September 8 at USM’s Hannaford Hall
- New Shelter, New Site: Process Update blog post with past and future timelines, by City Councilor Belinda Ray, Chair of the the committee leading this initiative
- Health & Human Services and Public Safety Committee, the committee leading the shelter relocation effort, which is currently evaluating the City’s recommendation of the Barron Center campus
- Contact Info for members of the Portland City Council
- Emergency Shelter Assessment Committee, longterm ongoing committee that tracks data on homelessness
- WMTW Channel 8 News coverage of location announcement
- News Center Maine coverage of location announcement