Over the next month you’re going to see a lot of “smaller shelters” signs urging you to Vote A on Portland’s Question 1, but you should be wary. While the idea of “smaller shelters” may sound good in theory, Option A will actively harm people experiencing homelessness. That’s why groups like Preble Street’s Homeless Voices for Justice and advocates from organizations that work to prevent and end homelessness have spoken out against it.
What’s so bad about Option A?
For one thing, it eliminates key services shelters need to help people move from homelessness to stable, permanent housing. If Option A passes, shelters in Portland will not be required to have day space, which means there will be nowhere for shelter guests to stay during the day and no place for providers to offer essential day programming and services.
Option A also removes the requirements for shelters to provide access to and from METRO service and to have adequate space for security searches and other assessments.
Under Option A, shelters will no longer be required to have a plan for on-site surveillance – a measure which is essential for keeping shelter guests safe – and they won’t be required to have controls for guest behavior and noise levels, a provision that is key in ensuring shelter guests have a calm and secure space and that shelters are good neighbors.
Finally, Option A removes the requirement for there to be clear sightlines to sleeping areas. That might not sound like a big deal, but when Donna Yellen of Preble Street was testifying before the Planning Board in October of 2020, she affirmed that, “these big wide open spaces, which the CDC says are best for shelters, with high ceilings and lots of air flow, are really very successful trauma-informed spaces. […] The clear open sightlines make everybody feel more settled and more safe.”
So why is Option A full of so much bad policy for shelters?
Because Option A was crafted to block the new Homeless Services Center (HSC), a facility Portland needs to replace the Oxford Street Shelter. If Option A passes in November and a judge decides that its retroactivity clause applies to the HSC, Portland will lose shelter beds at a time when we desperately need them. That means more people experiencing homelessness will be left without access to basic needs and essential services that could help get them back on their feet.
The new HSC is ready to go and can be open in early 2023. Meanwhile, the “smaller shelters” the people behind Option A are pushing have no plans, no funding, and no people stepping forward to build or manage them.
Option A proffers an unrealistic, unsustainable solution. It is not embraced by local advocates or organizations working on the issue of homelessness, and it could severely hamper Portland’s social services network.
Option B, on the other hand, continues Portland’s steady progress toward a new, state-of-the-art, safe, humane, dignified, and welcoming homeless services center with a full medical and dental clinic on site, plenty of day space, transit access, and the wraparound services people need all on site.
So please, vote for Option B on Portland’s Question 1, because Option A is not what it seems.
AUTHOR'S NOTE: Cullen Ryan, Executive Director of Community Housing of Maine, has a Maine Voices column on this topic titled, "Why 'smaller shelters' means the status quo." Ryan makes many of the same points I've made above, but he urges a vote for Option C. It's worth a read. Option B is my first choice and will get my vote on November 2nd, but my second choice is Option C, rejecting both ballot initiatives.