BNA Opposes New Preble Street Shelters in Bayside

Preble Street hopes to fast-track conversion of Resource Center into new, permanent shelter without notifying neighborhood.

In June 2020 the BNA learned of the plan to convert the Preble Street Resource Center on Portland Street into a new, permanent 40-bed emergency homeless shelter. The goal is to replace a temporary 50-bed shelter set up at the USM Sullivan Gym to allow for social distancing during the COVID-19 pandemic. For over a year Preble Street has also been attempting to site a shelter at 55 Portland Street, a building they purchased for this purpose despite improper zoning, a variety of incompatible covenants, and community concerns.

The Bayside neighborhood is currently home base for three homeless shelters, three overflow shelter sites, many rehab beds and sober houses, and dozens of other social services. This concentration has had tremendous negative impact and defies current understanding of best practices for serving people experiencing homelessness. For many years the BNA has been told there would be “no new shelters in Bayside,” yet these attempts by Preble Street continue.

The BNA categorically opposes siting any additional homeless shelters in the Bayside neighborhood. Below is our July 17, 2020 letter to the Portland City Council. It was approved by an overwhelming majority of the sixteen member board and eighteen community members signed in support.

June 17, 2020

Mayor Snyder and Members of the City Council,

The COVID-19 pandemic has forced shelter providers to do something no one has tried for over twenty years – disperse the ever-increasing number of people languishing in the streets around Preble Street’s resource center and soup kitchen. Spacing people out at other locations has proven successful in controlling the spread of disease amongst those experiencing homelessness. Physical and mental stress and problematic behaviors have been reduced at the distancing shelters. Apparently this is a revelation. Homeless advocates are wondering “Why didn’t we do this years ago?” That’s a very good question.

But what’s going to happen when the temporary USM Sullivan Gym shelter closes in July? Despite all logic, Preble Street wants to build a new shelter on the ruins they left behind at the resource center, that’s what. Maybe they’ll also try again at 55 Portland Street, despite improper zoning and other restrictions. Either way, the lessons of the pandemic are being ignored if not mocked.

The same people who were beginning to recover, to feel their way forward out of the chaos, will be forced back into the same mess of a neighborhood they left – the same stabbings, the same fights, the same drug deals, the same piles of trash, the same stress, the same despair, the same everything. You all know what goes on here; you know nothing has changed in over twenty years except to get worse. In fact despite over 100 people being sheltered elsewhere, police calls for service doubled in the past month or so. The entrenched idea that this is just what homelessness IS will only be validated by a new shelter.

So I will take this opportunity to remind the Council of a few things in regards to Preble Street’s plan:

• The question of shelter density was raised and ultimately tabled by the Planning Board in 2018. One planning board member referred to small shelter zoning as “a solution in search of a problem.” This indicates an unacceptable lack of familiarity with the extreme impact shelter proliferation has had on the Bayside community. No permits of any kind should be granted by the City without thorough review of Preble Street’s operational impacts and refusal to engage in problem-solving with the neighborhood.

• When shelter zoning was expanded in 2018 new, stringent conditional use standards were crafted for emergency shelters in order to best serve clients and minimize community impact. These requirements are prescriptive and not arbitrary. Any new shelter must be specifically designed to accommodate their implementation. To allow an inadequate shelter to open swiftly and permanently, or even temporarily in a potentially permanent location, is antithetical to the Council’s own intentions, contrary to existing ordinances, and invites legal action.

• Siting homeless shelters now requires extreme care, consideration, deliberation, and process, even more so in Bayside. This neighborhood is living proof of what happens when that care is not taken. Using the pandemic as a reason to expedite permits or deny Bayside complete and thorough process is unacceptable and will be challenged. This situation requires more time and care, not less.

• NO other allowable use in any zone would, in anyone’s wildest dreams, be permitted to create anything close to the impacts of the resource center and soup kitchen. These impacts are real, documented, harmful to the community, and the City apparently has no mechanism to address them. Unless and until a means of mitigating the current situation is found there can be no new shelters in Bayside.

• Preble Street has not proven nor taken any reasonable steps to prove its ability to lessen the impacts of its operations, despite full awareness of community concerns and millions of dollars in annual funding. They do not behave as a responsible community partner despite good faith efforts and even pleas on the part of the neighborhood. It is incumbent upon the city to deny expansion of its services and programs and the addition of any shelters in Bayside for any reason, particularly in an emergency situation whose amelioration depends on safe, sanitary and socially distant conditions.

• The current operations of the Preble Street resource center and soup kitchen, and operations of the City’s Oxford Street Shelter prior to winter 2018, clearly qualify as maintenance of a public nuisance. A proven public nuisance is subject to legal action and potentially an injunction and fines. While the City has instituted effective measures to mitigate, insofar as possible at the current location, the impacts of shelter operations, Preble Street has not. Indeed, Preble Street management has referred to measures such as extended hours, bathroom access, and storage for belongings as “duplicative” in light of the City’s efforts.

And perhaps most important:

• The city has devoted tremendous time and resources to the effort to site a modern homeless services center in Riverton. This process, which involved considerable input from Bayside residents, was specifically aimed at reducing negative neighborhood impacts of shelters. Had this service center moved forward at the original Barron Center site in a timely fashion the need for today’s temporary satellite shelters and hotel rooms may have been reduced if not eliminated. If any shelter deserves to be fast-tracked it is this one; if any shelter doesn’t it’s the one being proposed and operated by Preble Street.

Dan Brennan of Maine State Housing said “We simply can’t go back to the way things were… We need a new shelter system. We need a new approach.” Allowing a new shelter in Bayside is the antithesis of a new system. It’s the same old ineffective approach. It is nothing short of unethical to contemplate sending vulnerable people back to an ill-considered, hastily planned shelter in Bayside, a neighborhood where crime, violence, and despair circulate as easily as any virus.

Maine is a big state. Yet an astounding array of social services and shelters have been gerrymandered into a couple blocks in a poor neighborhood that comprises one percent of Portland’s landmass and five percent of its population. Is it any wonder Bayside commands 21% of Portland’s police calls for service? Nothing about that is even remotely okay, or necessary. Making it worse by allowing an independent nonprofit to increase the shelter capacity of Bayside – a nonprofit that has been quoted as saying that it is not responsible for any impacts outside its doors, and barely responsible for those inside – is indefensible.

Now is the time for other neighborhoods, towns, cities and counties to do their part. For the health and safety of both those people experiencing homelessness and those who live and operate businesses in Bayside, this Council, the City of Portland, and the State of Maine have a duty to ensure that new shelters be sited outside of Bayside. It’s time to stop putting broken people in a broken system into the same broken neighborhood and expect different results.

Thank you,
Sarah Michniewicz
President, Bayside Neighborhood Association

Bayside Neighborhood Association Board of Directors

Laura Cannon, Vice President
Colette Bouchard, Secretary
James Hall, Treasurer
Jonathan Bass
Dennis Ferrante
Amy Geren
Sean Kerwin
Alexander Landry
Susan McCloskey
Scott Morrison
Stephanie Scherer
Heidi Souerwine
Robert Sylvain
Deborah Van Hoewyk
Ex Officio: Preble Street (abstained)

18 Community Members Signed in Support