[NOTE: As a site admin, I’m a frequent poster on this web site, but most posts with my byline are on behalf of BNA as a whole, or on behalf of specific individuals as noted. This one is from my own POV. – Laura C]
As a resident of Bayside for 10 years, a member of BNA for almost as long, and Vice President of BNA for about 6 years, I’ve spent a fair bit of time at City Hall; in community meetings; in meetings with elected officials and city staff; listening to and in discussion with social services providers from many nonprofit organizations, government agencies, and community initiatives; learning from and working with neighbors who have lived here for decades; and, of course, living in community with people experiencing homelessness. Does this make me an expert on solutions to homelessness? No, of course not. But I know much more than I did 10 years ago, and I wish more people could go through that learning curve more quickly than I did, because that experience counts.
After years of work by a dedicated committee to find a practical solution to Portland’s hopelessly outdated and overwhelmed Oxford Street Shelter, some people without much experience are now calling for…yet…another…task force. (Sigh.)
We have a task force NOW. It’s made up of the people who have been showing up for the hard work and hard conversations for years:
- People who work with homeless and at-risk individuals on a daily basis and know what is needed, in practical terms, to serve this population and empower individuals to take the steps toward long-term positive change.
- Residents (both long-term and short-term) of Bayside and neighboring communities who have been participating in the public process that has been going on for years, who know what has gone wrong here and are sharing that information in order to get it right.
- (For those just joining us, it has less to do with “where homeless people belong” and more to do with the density of need and risk, the ratio of long-term residents to transient individuals, a maze of one-way streets, hopelessly inadequate facilities, and a problematic situation that was allowed to fester and grow into a crisis.)
- People who have devoted their personal time to sit on previous task forces, like this one and this one, and produced work products full of information and recommendations, like this, and who continue to participate in the process.
- Members of the Health & Human Services and Public Safety Committee and staff of the Health & Human Services department, who have suffered the slings and arrows of public outrage in order to move their work forward, and produced or made visible a significant volume of data, experience, knowledge, and recommendations.
- Members of the Portland City Council who have attended those Committee meetings, participated in previous iterations of that committee, diligently dug into the work done already, advised on history and policy in order to move the discussion forward, and otherwise invested their own time & energy into understanding the many factors involved in this important decision.
What would a new task force accomplish?
Aside from interrupting work in progress, delaying practical positive change, and perpetuating a situation many describe as inhumane, what’s wrong with bringing in some “fresh voices?” What could we expect from such a task force?
- Unworkable solutions
Solutions proposed or supported by those in favor of Yet Another Task Force (YATF) include locations in current, active use for incompatible purposes, like fire stations, gyms, and the Portland Expo. I’ve heard far too many statements that start with “Why don’t they just…” as if there is some simple, obvious solution to the complex and intersecting factors that have led to the current need.
- Ignorance of the most basic facts and current conditions
In discussing these issues and this process with those who are new to them, including people pushing for YATF, the number one stumbling block is the need to clarify to people that the Preble Street Resource Center (at 5 Portland Street, and run by one of the largest nonprofit organizations in Maine) IS NOT the Oxford Street Shelter (at 203 Oxford Street, and run by the City of Portland), and/or that these are 2 separate facilities and managing bodies.
- Another common unproductive conversation is one that starts with the strongly held opinion is that “Housing First is a better solution,” without any knowledge of recent and current Housing First projects, or the fact that most people get into that housing via the emergency shelter.
- There are real, difficult discussions that need to take place to move this work forward. We don’t have time to waste on these fundamental misconceptions.
- Short attention spans
One group of self-appointed “solution seekers” made a loud & visible fuss early on in the site selection process, and while they promised “Our intent is not to derail the Barron Center proposal and walk away,” they haven’t presented updated information or opportunities to participate since that location was eliminated…such as the Council vote that’s set to take place this month.
- Good old run-of-the-mill NIMBYism
Part of the reason solutions have been long in coming is that there is strong resistance to locating a shelter near…anyone or anything. No task force is going to change that, and in fact it’s more likely to perpetuate the problem, since the most likely participants of a “diverse, city-wide” resident task force would be residents of the wealthiest residential neighborhoods, who have the time, agency, and motivation to keep such a facility away. Many people have described this as a “city-wide issue,” but the sad reality is that the vast majority of Portland residents have only gotten involved when a location was proposed nearby.
We don’t need Yet Another Task Force to learn AGAIN what makes these decisions difficult, or to re-hash old arguments and AGAIN come up against the tangible realities that have led to those decisions. This is, and always has been, a public process; there are more decisions down the road, and anyone with something to offer can contribute to the conversation; that doesn’t require a new task force.