At that time, as part of the 2015 Task Force to Study the Feasibility of Consolidating Shelter Services, Preble Street and the City of Portland were talking about establishing a 300-bed shelter for men on a small, city-owned parcel in Bayside. That didn’t sound like a good idea to me.
My gut reaction was that there was no way a single facility could humanely serve 300 people experiencing homelessness and that thise individuals would be much better served in a different setting.
On the campaign trail, I advocated for the city to instead build five smaller shelters, scattered throughout the city, and I was pretty passionate about it. In fact, I may very well have been the person who locally popularized the phrase, “We can’t warehouse people.” I said it at nearly every forum I attended.
But that was then. And I can tell you now: I didn’t know what I was talking about.
My first bit of in-depth education on the matter came from Mark Swann, Executive Director of Preble Street.
Mark reached out to me shortly after I was elected. He'd heard my comments on the campaign trail and wanted to help me understand the lay of the land when it came to social services and homelessness in Portland. We sat down in his office and he ran through the list of smaller shelters that used to exist in Portland but that had closed in recent years. Among the ones Mark mentioned were shelters run by:
- Catholic Charities
- The Salvation Army
- The YWCA
- Youth Alternatives
- Maine Adoption Placement Services
The reason they had all closed?
Mark told me exactly the same thing he told a Bangor Daily News reporter later that same year:
“I am certain that high on their list of reasons [for closing] — if not the very top — would be lack of funding,” said Swann of the shuttered shelters. “There simply is no sustainable, sizable source of government funding to operate homeless shelters.”(source).
That task force was created to figure out the best way to replace the Oxford Street Shelter and address the need to have a central intake process in the shelter system. This service model, embraced by all the social service providers in the area, came out of the 2011 Task Force to Prevent and End Homelessness, on which Mark also served.
As part of the 2015 Task Force, Mark and the other members discussed different shelter models, including the possibility of establishing five smaller shelters. They looked at the economics of such a move and found it to be financially infeasible and unsustainable.
That's also when the idea to create a 300-bed shelter for men in Bayside, side by side with a 60 bed shelter for women, began to get some publicity—right around the time that I entered the race for the District One seat on the Council.
That “warehouse” term stuck - just as the term “megashelter” is sticking now. Both are inflammatory terms that are meant to incite rather than inform, and I am quite ashamed now that I once minimized this complex issue to such a simplistic soundbite. I will certainly work hard not to make that mistake again.
In any case, after meeting with Mark in early 2016 and getting this important history, I still wasn’t completely sure the larger facility was the right path. After all, if it was all about economics, shouldn’t we continue to work to find a way to fund the smaller shelters? But even if I wasn't fully convinced, Mark had certainly given me some food for thought. And one thing we both agreed on absolutely was that the Oxford Street Shelter needed to be replaced as soon as possible. It was poorly configured and totally inadequate for its purpose. A duplex built in 1900, the building at 203 Oxford Street was never meant to provide shelter to 154 people at a time, emergency or otherwise.
So, in September of 2016, the HHS & PS Committee, accompanied by the City Manager, city staff, and Randy Billings, visited a couple of shelters in the Boston area that were known for having best practices in place. The idea was for us to have an opportunity to learn from their experience so that we could get a better idea of what kind of facility we needed to replace the OSS.
We visited Father Bill’s in Quincy and Caspar Emergency Services Center & Shelter on the MIT Campus. Both were eye-opening because they had well designed facilities that included clear sightlines to sleeping spaces, plenty of space for showers, laundry, and meals on-site, and room for providers to come in and offer the wraparound services that are so important to help people transition from homelessness to more stable, permanent housing.
Back in Portland, it was clearer to me than ever that the Oxford Street Shelter could never be the facility we needed, despite the excellent work that staff did within its severely limited and poorly configured space each and every day.
I began to think again about Mark’s statements that multiple, scattered shelters weren’t financially sustainable, and I also began to talk to other service providers about what they thought we needed.
After many months and many conversations, I began to realize that fiscal feasibility was not the only reason it made sense for the city to replace the Oxford Street Shelter with a single facility rather than several smaller scattered shelters. What became clearer and clearer the deeper I delved was that a larger shelter that could act as a central intake facility for people experiencing homelessness wouldn’t just be more economically sustainable—it would also provide superior service. Why?
Because in Portland, we are very fortunate to have a complex network of services and providers to assist people dealing with homelessness along with underlying issues that may lead to homelessness. Indeed, this network of caring and competent professionals is one of our city’s great strengths.
There are numerous people and agencies who are set up to assist people in difficult circumstances, but many of them (likely all of them) operate on very tight budgets and with limited personnel. And they are situated in various locations within Portland’s boundaries and beyond.
There are two ways for people who need these services to access them:
- Individuals can set up appointments at various locations and spend their days traveling from one appointment to the next, trying to acquire everything they need (housing, general assistance, medical appointments, counseling, legal help, employment, medical and dental care, etc.).
- The services can come to them.
Option #1, above, is the way we’ve been doing things for 30+ years.
We focused on establishing numerous shelter facilities in the Bayside and downtown area (the Oxford Street Shelter, the Family Shelter, the Teen Shelter; overflow shelters at the Salvation Army Gym, the YMCA, and the City’s General Assistance office; Florence House over in the St. John Valley neighborhood; and over in the India Street neighborhood, Milestone Recovery). We thought putting all of these facilities in one area, allegedly “close to the social services,” would make it easier for people to access those services, but that hasn’t been the case.
For one thing, not all of the social services people need to access are “right next door,” so to speak. They are spread out throughout the city, and navigating them all is like navigating a very difficult maze while wearing a blindfold.
Option #2, above, is the best practice.
Instead of forcing people to navigate a complex system of services spread out in different agencies in different locations, bring the services to them.
That is what will happen at the new Homeless Services Center at 638-654 Riverside Street [linki to blog post], and that is why agencies with expertise in helping people transition from homelessness to housing stability support the new 200-bed HSC that was just approved by the Planning Board.
Among the many agencies supporting the HSC are:
- Greater Portland Health
- Milestone Recovery
- Shalom House
- Community Housing of Maine
- Through These Doors
- The Opportunity Alliance.
And me. I'm not an agency, but I support the HSC 100%, and you should, too.
If you’re still skeptical, take a minute to read this description of the space from the Portland Cares website which explains both how the facility will be configured and the role it will play in the larger system, which DOES include smaller specialty shelters, many of which we already have.
The new Homeless Service Center will be situated on 7 acres, the building will be four times the size of the Oxford Street Shelter; providing space for an on-site medical clinic, dental health clinic, behavioral health counseling, substance abuse counseling, 200 beds (not floor mats) for emergency use, day-use programming, and meal service. Our current system of providing shelter for the homeless by night but not by day makes it difficult for these individuals to access services and it forces the service providers to spend precious time shuttling between multiple locations each and every day.
The Homeless Service Center will serve as an initial contact for individuals to connect with a social worker to help them navigate a safe and healthy path forward. In many cases, a homeless individual will then go to a need-specific shelter, or transitional housing, permanent housing, or be connected with appropriate resources for the given situation. Portland’s shelter sites are set up for specialty services and Portland has worked hard to establish specialty services for teens, women, families, and people struggling with addiction. These shelters are useful and vital in the community’s multi-prong effort to provide services to those in need and differ significantly from the antiquated and ill-equipped emergency shelter at Oxford Street.
Clockwise from top left: Campus layout of the 7-acre HSC property; main entry to new HSC with medical clinic entry at right; long-view of the HSC; common space inside entry of HSC.
So, that’s a little bit about how my thinking has evolved over the last six years, and hopefully it helps folks to understand why it is so important to vote for Option B or Option C on Portland's Question 1 in the 2021 election.
If you are so inclined, please peruse the resources below for more information. Thanks for reading, and thanks for your caring and compassion for all of our neighbors in Portland and beyond.
- The New 200-Bed Homeless Services Center is the Right Move for Portland
- It Takes a Village
- Smaller Shelters Initiative is not what it Seems
- Portland Cares: The Solution
- Vote Option B on Portland's Question 1
- Maine Voices: Why Smaller Shelters Means the Status Quo
- September 14, 2021 Planning Board Agenda with detailed plans for the HSC (click the "Agenda Items" tabe and scroll down to Item 5.iv: The Major Site Plan and Conditional Use review for the project)