BNA Shelter Policy Resolution Support Letter to the City Council

The 16-member Board of the BNA voted unanimously to approve this letter of support for the Shelter Policy Resolution that paves the way for a new homeless services center to replace the Oxford Street Shelter

To Members of the Portland City Council,

Portland’s current model of aiding the homeless with services strewn haphazardly over several blocks becomes more outmoded, ineffective, inhumane and unsustainable with each passing day. It does not reflect current federally endorsed best practices or what Portland is capable of achieving. For Portland to effectively support those experiencing homelessness the City must immediately begin design and construction of a modern homeless services center at the approved site in Riverton.  

Therefore the Bayside Neighborhood Association supports the Resolution Outlining Policy Goals For The City of Portland’s Single-Adult Shelter Facility as passed unanimously by the Health and Human Services Committee. The resolution reflects years of work, education, dedication and a determination to not repeat mistakes of the past. We ask you to vote passage on this resolution when it comes before you.

We further urge you to reject substantive amendments (such as 5, 8, 9 &12) that have been proposed by Councilor Kim Cook on the basis that they would:

  • Distort the purpose, scope and impact of the original resolution
  • Indefinitely delay the replacement of the Oxford Street Shelter (8)
  • Needlessly perpetuate the ever-worsening community crisis that has been created by operating out of the current failing facility (8)
  • Fail to provide an appropriate number of beds and level of service to achieve the primary goal of adequately sheltering those in need and improving the way Portland addresses homelessness (8 ,9, 12)
  • Result in a facility that is over capacity and ineffective as soon as it opens thereby replicating the same problems it was built to solve (8, 9)
  • Continue to unnecessarily strain the City’s public health and safety resources by failing to adequately support vulnerable populations
  • Shift Portland’s focus from dealing with the immediate crisis to imagining a shelter network for the entire state (5)
  • Distance the city from the daily reality of shelter operations and the impacts they may be having on the surrounding neighborhood (15)
  • Worsen the already unsustainable pressure on the Bayside neighborhood 

The express intention of the resolution is to formalize guidance thus paving the way for Portland to enter the modern era of homeless services. Councilor Cook’s wholesale alteration of Item 8 and elimination of Item 9 eviscerate those intentions and instead propose that forces beyond the City’s control continue to shape Portland’s destiny.  

Efforts to garner statewide support are vitally important but do not excuse the City from taking  immediate and decisive action. Failure to do so will leave the City in the unfortunate position of having to defend its choice to allow an acknowledged community crisis and public nuisance to continue unabated. This is not like the paid sick leave initiative, where the City could reasonably defer action because the state was poised to act. There is no magical solution in the offing, and the stakes are too high to put off this decision any longer.

The original resolution and new homeless services center model, Shelter 2.0, will position Portland as a leader in effective, efficient delivery of services via federally endorsed best practices. It will allow us to become an example to follow instead of a cautionary tale. Most important, this facility will give shelter staff breathing room and resources to do their best work so clients have the dignity and support they need to quickly transition out of homelessness and into permanent housing.

The deficiencies of the existing city shelter were obvious twenty years ago, yet action was not taken. We are now living the consequences of allowing distortions, objections, assumptions and projected fears to drive the narrative about homelessness and prevent progress. This council has the rare opportunity to memorialize its tenure with a truly transformative decision.

 We ask you to respect the expertise, research, and documented history of the process that has brought us to this point. We strenuously urge you to reject any amendment, alteration, or suggestion that delays the design and construction of the Riverton homeless services center, downgrades its capacity or compromises its mission. We ask you to choose a legacy of leadership. 

Building the homeless services center in Riverton, based on policy guidance in the resolution before you, is the next step toward equity for all citizens and neighborhoods in Portland. The Board of the Bayside Neighborhood Association asks you to take that step, and the next, and the next until we enter the future through the doors of the new homeless services center in Riverton.


Sarah Michniewicz
President, Bayside Neighborhood Association


Are You Concentrating?

What do you think you know?

One of the persistent narratives about the quest to site a new 150 bed homeless services center to replace Portland’s city-run Oxford Street Shelter is that it will overwhelm any neighborhood in its vicinity. This fear is based on assumptions about what 150 homeless people accessing services in one area looks like. Those assumptions are in turn based on the similar 154 person capacity of the Oxford Street Shelter and misunderstandings about the level of disorder around the social service cluster in Bayside.

Most of that disorder is not centered around the Oxford Street Shelter, on Oxford Street. It’s concentrated around the privately-run non-profit Preble Street Resource Center and soup kitchen two blocks away on Preble Street. Well, okay, why does that area look like a chaos factory that no one would want in their neighborhood? 154 shelter guests eat there, don’t they? Aren’t 154 people the cause of all the mayhem?

Not quite.

Within just a few blocks in Bayside there exists not only the city-run 154 bed (well, actually mat) Oxford Street Shelter; there are also two city-run 75 bed overflow spaces, a 151 bed city-run family shelter and warming center, a 60 bed city-run family shelter overflow, Preble Street’s 24 bed teen shelter and a separate teen center, several rehab facilities housing well over 100 people, multiple sober houses, and many formerly-homeless neighborhood residents who use the Preble Street Resource Center and soup kitchen. There are literally hundreds of people, often well over 500 every day, coming and going from there. They are accessing meals, case work, medical care, rehab, general assistance, employment placement and many other services in and around Preble Street’s facility. Some people are there to take advantage of the chaos and prey on others. That’s a lot of vulnerable people to attract to one street corner.

And it’s a busy corner. Preble Street/Preble Street Extension is a major point of access to downtown Portland for commuters arriving from off-peninsula, Windham and Westbrook. 500-plus people coming and going from the Resource Center and Soup Kitchen is hard to miss. The scene looks messy and chaotic, and it is, because there are far more than just 154 shelter clients navigating a veritable campus of social service providers.

Not everything is what it seems

So what does the area around the Oxford Street Shelter actually look like? That depends on when you started tuning in. In its early days, it wasn’t too bad. Busy, but mostly manageable. When numbers went higher but the building stayed the same, things started getting hectic. When the homeless population continued to surge, things got out of control. At that time it was only an overnight shelter and guests were required to leave in the early morning.

With nowhere to store belongings at the shelter, folks would pack up, put everything on their backs and head out for breakfast; then to work, or to appointments, or to… nowhere. With zero buffer from the surrounding neighborhood, they had to move out into the exposed courtyard, or onto the sidewalks of the abutting streets, or sometimes into neighbors’ yards. Some folks had nothing to do. Many had nowhere to just be, especially as Preble Street scaled back their hours in recent years.

Now that the Oxford Street Shelter operates 24/7 and guests can stay on premises if desired, the area around it is relatively calm compared to the chaos around the Resource Center and soup kitchen. City security staff patrol the blocks around the shelter to monitor activity, calm disorder, guide people to where they need to be and away from where they don’t. Evenings can still be unruly because there isn’t adequate space inside to check people in efficiently; the building is just too small and cramped. And the many homes in the immediate vicinity–11 are within 200 feet–are still disproportionately impacted.

But in the past two years the city installed outdoor storage so people don’t have to resort to tucking their belongings away around the neighborhood where they are likely to be ransacked or stolen. Outdoor bathrooms were added to give guests who were eliminating in public a better option. Staff picks up trash around the block several times a day. There’s a Shelter Hotline for neighbors to call if they have any questions or concerns. And shelter staff works incredibly hard to help and house clients while building and maintaining respectful relationships with neighbors.

In short, the city has voluntarily made many improvements to the existing space, improvements that are required of the new center. The chaos is minimized as best it can be given the incredible limitations of the surrounding environment.

You can’t get there from here

So why doesn’t the rest of the city seem to know this? Location, location, location. On foot, the Oxford Street Shelter is a straight shot, just two blocks from Preble Street, divided by Elm Street. But by vehicle it’s tucked away. Oxford Street is one way but goes in opposite directions where it intersects with Elm Street, so from Preble Street you just can’t get there from here, not without going around the block. And only residents and shelter employees have much reason to do that.

The Oxford Street Shelter sits at the intersection of Oxford and yet another one-way street, Cedar. About thirty years ago people who were homeless in Portland were plunked down in the middle of what was then a dense residential area, but many houses near the shelter were systematically demolished as parking lots crept in. Destinations to draw in the rest of the city’s residents and visitors dwindled as social service providers multiplied. The balance shifted.

The shelter eventually became a remote island in a social service archipelago surrounded by a stormy sea. For the rest of Portland it was out-of-sight, out-of-mind. The number of people seeking shelter increased. If the rest of the city noticed anything, they noticed the much more obvious activity concentrated around Preble Street’s facilities. They noticed the impact of around 529 vulnerable people, not 154. And then they looked the other way. Things were allowed to fester.

But neighbors kept speaking up. City leaders began to step up. The current city manager and dedicated staff have spent the past two years making changes, refining and improving, implementing the practices that can make a shelter a good neighbor. Yet only the immediate abutters seem to realize that the 154 bed Oxford Street Shelter has become a better neighbor despite years of neglect and tremendous odds.

Where do we go now?

Is it enough? Not by a long shot. As long as the Oxford Street Shelter is located in a labyrinth, struggling to function in an outdated, overrun, leased converted apartment building/auto garage, with no kitchen, laundry facilities, or space to provide partner services, programming, or adequate space to be, it will fail to achieve its goals. As long as guests have to battle crowds and chaos just to eat a meal or get case work and medical help, the system is failing them. As long as one neighborhood is carrying almost all of the weight for the entire city, most of Southern Maine, and places far beyond, everyone is failing Bayside.

Homelessness is a big, tangled, difficult problem, but this part is easy: what you see is not what will be. 154 is not the same as 529. The Oxford Street Shelter is not the same as Preble Street. And a modern homeless services center is different than anything Portland has seen before.

So let’s start concentrating on building a better future.

The “scattered site” model: a history

NOTE:  The following is excerpted, with light edits, from an email from the author to the Portland City Council and other contributors to the effort to plan a new Homeless Services Center to replace the Oxford Street Shelter.  

Despite multiple explorations on the question of scattered vs. consolidated shelters, all of which have come to the same conclusion, the idea that the City of Portland should pay for multiple small emergency shelters persists.  I haven’t been to every meeting on this topic, but I’ve been to a lot, and my own thinking on this question has evolved as I’ve gained new information.  Here are some highlights:

In 2011, a group of dedicated people, including many who worked for organizations that serve the shelter population, and our current City Manager, met for a year as a Homelessness Prevention Task Force, producing this extensive Strategic Plan in 2012:–End-Homelessness-in-Portland–Nov-2012-Update

It’s a long report, and many people, including myself, relied on news reports and the impressions of experienced stakeholders for a distillation of the key take-aways . One of these take-aways was that scattered, smaller shelters are preferable to a larger shelter.

Despite that impression, in 2015, the City explored teaming up with Preble Street on a consolidated shelter, to be located in Bayside, and the HHS Committee met about it on January 13 and March 10, 2015.  Minutes and packets can be found by going to this page and choosing “View More” on the right and selecting “2015”: 

The packet for the March 13, 2015 meeting has a page titled “Proposed Emergency Shelter Consolidation Study” on city letterhead, followed by a sample budget.  (It’s a long packet; this material is about 3/4 of the way through.)  Note the following:

“The study will also revisit data from Preble Street regarding the estimated cost of scattered site shelters from the Homelessness Task Force. Though this model was described as an alternative to a consolidated shelter, the costs appear to be prohibitively high and thus this model may be unrealistic given the current environment.” 

In the wake of this effort and in consideration of funding cuts and obstruction from the state level, the City Council then formed another task force.  My husband, Sean Kerwin, was a member of that task force, whose work included discussion about scattered vs. consolidated shelter models.  This group also faced the reality that the duplication of facilities, staff, and services makes a scattered approach prohibitively expensive, and the task force set to considering best practices.  This group’s work was then brought to an end, since it was apparent that their work would be duplicating much of what the previous task force had already accomplished, and the newly appointed City Manager, Jon Jennings, brought his knowledge and experience as tri-chair of that first task force. This document illustrates the overlap of the two task forces, and it’s useful to see the list of stakeholders who did not pursue the scattered shelter option as a feasible approach:

Not only that, but the Strategic Plan actually doesn’t have much to say about scattered shelters being preferable.

In that 25 page plan, there are a few phrases like “other specialty shelters” and “other temporary housing” and “continuum of specialty housing” and “Regionalize the solution to homelessness in Greater Portland.”

What it does clearly recommend 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…”

So the “scattered shelters are better than a single large shelter” position is actually an inaccurate oversimplification of the recommendations of the Strategic Plan.  

(Also, a key element in the small-vs.-big narrative is being glossed over, which is the intake process.  A facility which manages the intake process and emergency housing for newly homeless people provides a different function than one which provides short-term housing for people who are up to speed on the “system” (such as it is) for accessing resources.  But both types tend to get lumped together as a “shelter.”  This blog post by City Councilor Belinda Ray clarifies this to an extent, while giving due credit to other service providers who have partnered with the city on specialty projects.)

Moreover, my understanding is that the family shelter here in Bayside will remain open, as will Preble Street’s teen shelter (also in Bayside), Florence House, and Milestone.  So we already have some small specialty shelters. They’re just all within a narrow,  2 mile long area on the peninsula.  If the small shelter zoning passes, other “specialty shelters” and “temporary housing” will be enabled across the city.

Given all of this, it’s time for references to smaller shelters to more accurately reflect the intentions of the Strategic Plan and the widely-recognized reality that it’s prohibitively expensive to accomplish the same goals from multiple locations vs. a single location.  More recently, service providers have also expressed concern about clients “falling through the cracks” in a multi-location model.



[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.NIMBY_website
  • 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.

The Portland City Council has the information, resources, and access to expertise and experience that it needs to do its job.  They just have to do it.


Siting the New Homeless Services Center: Info and Resources

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 upcoming City Council vote on siting a new Homeless Services Center is the latest step in a long process 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, in accordance with current best practices, and in line with new zoning standards (see next point).
  • 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 only 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, and existing options like taxi vouchers and a city van will be continued.
  • The city is already taking action.
    In recent years, 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. Community Policing efforts have grown, including new foot patrol officers. 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 all neighborhoods share a responsibility for providing solutions to the complex problems that lead to, and result from, homelessness.  Most importantly, 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.

We look forward to conversations with all concerned parties.  Contact us at or visit us on Facebook.