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

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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.