An Absence of Equity

On January 5, 2021, Portland’s Planning Board fast-tracked approval of a new permanent emergency shelter in Bayside. At first blush a public good, this fourth shelter in a 515 foot radius only worsens long-standing inequity and doubles down on the immoral practice of segregating Maine’s lowest socio-economic sector into a designated 0.2 square mile area. It reinforces the fact that the only option for many people seeking shelter is the highest-crime section of Maine’s largest city. It confirms that Bayside residents and businesses are expected to selflessly shoulder much of Maine’s responsibility for addressing homelessness, no matter the cost.

The mere fact of density isn’t itself the problem. Bayside has suffered from both a perpetual lack of foresight in shelter planning and an unwillingness to learn from the past or even acknowledge the reality of the present. This reactive, piecemeal, rudderless approach to shelters has allowed massive community impacts to go unexamined for decades, un-ironically excused as the unavoidable collateral damage of compassion.

The below charts and graphs demonstrate the lack of equity in distribution of emergency shelters in Maine, Cumberland County, and Portland.

This document visualizes data at three points in time:

  • Baseline“– Capacity up to the prior year
  • Add PS– Includes Preble Street’s new Bayside shelter
  • ”Move OSS” – Shows the situation if Portland succeeds in relocating its Oxford Street Shelter to a more appropriate modern facility that has been sited off peninsula

Population

Accounting for population density does not hide the yeoman’s work that Bayside is doing for the rest of Maine. Adding a new emergency shelter within 1000” of three others made that situation somewhat worse (see blue bar in middle row). But even assuming the OSS move comes together (bottom row) – it’s visibly obvious that Bayside residents will still be the primary good samaritans supporting the state’s homelessness solutions.

Bayside’s Per Capita share of emergency beds is currently:

  • 105 times the City’s number of shelter beds
  • 687 times the County’s number of shelter beds
  • 196 times the State’s number of shelter beds

The middle bullet above particularly demonstrates how the rest of Cumberland County passively relies on Bayside, since roughly a third of Portland shelter guests arrive from other towns in the region. Portland also cares for another third with no direct ties to Maine, such as federal asylum seekers. Many thriving suburban municipalities could clearly afford to do their part, especially since there is a state-level reimbursement program already in place that is supposed to be used to respond to the emergency of homelessness where and when it happens. Instead a “skid row” continues to overwhelm one tiny residential neighborhood, while surrounding communities refuse to pay in, and in some cases actively ban homeless shelters.

Geography

Shifting the lens to density of emergency beds per land area, the contrast is so extreme that only a logarithmic scale with units normalized to “emergency beds per 100 square miles” allows all levels to be plotted visibly on the same chart. The rightmost column illustrates that relocating Oxford Street Shelter’s capacity to Riverton would increase the rest of Portland’s share a bit, but barely makes a dent in the super-concentrated quarter mile shelter cluster in Bayside.

Bayside’s per-square-mile share of emergency beds is:

  • 1,575 times the rest of Portland
  • 49,000 times the rest of Cumberland County
  • 83,000 times the rest of Maine

Percentage

Here is another view that compares % share of Bayside, Portland, Cumberland County, and Maine.

More exhaustive comparison below:

  • Cumberland County provides 39% of Maine’s emergency shelter facilities
  • Portland provides 35% of Maine’s emergency shelter facilities
  • Bayside provides 29% of Maine’s emergency shelter facilities
  • Portland provides 91% of Cumberland County’s emergency shelter facilities
  • Bayside provides 74% of Cumberland County’s emergency shelter facilities
  • Bayside provides 82% of Portland’s emergency shelter facilities
  • All of these are within a 515′ radius, embedded in a poor residential neighborhood
  • Approximately 23% of all Portland police calls for service are in Bayside, and most of those are in the blocks around the shelters

If Portland does move the Oxford Street Shelter off peninsula, Bayside would still continue to provide 16% of all Maine emergency beds, or 215 within less than 0.0006% of Maine’s land mass, inhabited by 0.0002% of Maine’s people, in a neighborhood whose development is vital to Portland’s future.

At the county level, there was at least a recent attempt to help provide some distancing space on county land (still within Portland city limits), but unfortunately the Greater Portland region has not yet succeeded in stepping up to actively participate. The State has contributed to Covid-related safety by funding hotel blocks as shelter during the state of emergency, but pointedly there has been no indication of willingness to materially support Portland’s well researched service center modernization, or provide alternative options.

So, back to equity…

Portland’s Comprehensive Plan embraces the concept of “Equity” – sharing benefits and responsibilities across all the neighborhoods of the city. But despite initiatives like Bayside Boost and expanding emergency shelter zoning almost four years ago, that equity has not been realized. Adding another 40 emergency beds to the current 329 (not including the previous overflow capacity of roughly 150) continues to kick that can down the road. Relocating the Oxford Street Shelter would be a good step, but only a beginning to actual neighborhood balance.

By any measure, at any level, Bayside is propping up the rest of the city, the rest of the county, the rest of the state, and beyond. None of that would matter if this model worked to safely, efficiently, and effectively resolve people’s homelessness with minimal impact on the surrounding community. But it doesn’t. It never has. That’s not right, it’s not sustainable, and it’s definitely not equitable.

DATA SOURCES:

Data on location & capacity of emergency beds comes from Portland’s Department of Health and Human Services.

Bayside Emergency SheltersCapacity
• Oxford154
• Family151
• Teen24Previous Baseline329
01/05/21 Approval of new Preble shelter+ 40Bayside Total339
… (If city decommissions Oxford)(– 154)(potential)(215)
Other Portland
• Milestone 41
• Florence House25
• Through These Doors16Other Portland Total 82
… (If city opens Riverton)(+ 200)(potential)(282)
Other Cumberland County
• Tedford (Brunswick)45Other C.C. Total45
Other Maine
(See DHHS list)740Other Maine Total740

Data on population & geography are straight up google-able. Numbers below are from Jan 2021.

Land Area (square miles)PopulationDensity / sq. mi.
• Bayside0.202,68013,400
• Portland7066,600951
• Cumberland County1,200295,000246
• Maine35,0001,344,00038