The game of concentration

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.