Do you favor one of the two city ordinances summarized below, or should both be rejected?
The ballot contains summaries and the full language of each proposal, so you'll be able to read them before you vote.
Ultimately, you have three options: choose A, choose B, or reject them both (C). Among the three options, there is one clear choice: Option B. Here’s why.
Both Option A and Option B make changes to the current regulations for emergency shelters in Portland, but Option A contains dangerous provisions that eliminate key components of emergency shelters, making them less safe and less accessible. This is why many advocates and organizations have spoken out against Option A and the push for "smaller shelters."
Check out the side by side comparison below to see how both A and B would impact the current regulations (represented here by Option C, which makes no changes). For more detail on the current regulations, jump to "The Current Regulations," below.
This is one of the key problems we've had with the OSS over the years. Because it was not built to serve as an emergency shelter (it was built in 1900 as a two-family home), there is no day space for residents or the wraparound services that are necessary to help people transition from homelessness to secure housing. What's more, there is a severe lack of day space in Portland for people experiencing homelessness, and a vote for Option A will exacerbate that problem.
Option A also removes the requirement for clear sightlines to sleeping spaces, a feature of emergency shelters that experts agree is essential. In her testimony before the Planning Board on October 20, 2020, Donna Yellen of Preble Street 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.”
And of course, Option A gets rid of the requirement for emergency shelters to ensure their clients have access to public transportation, a requirement that representatives from Homeless Voices for Justice and other advocates fought hard to have included in Portland's regulations when we were updating shelter zoning back in 2017.
Perhaps the most troubling aspect of Option A, apart from the fact that it makes shelters less safe and less accessible by eliminating these key components, is that it limits emergency shelters to 50 beds or fewer in most situations. That might sound like a good idea in theory, but in practice it could have devastating consequences. In fact, this 50-bed limitation is one of the reasons that Preble Street's Homeless Voices for Justice urged the council to place Option B on the ballot.
In an August 20, 2021 letter HVJ sent to the Council of behalf of the Emergency Shelter Assessment Committee, HVJ let the Council know that ESAC had voted to support the Council amendment placing Option B on the ballot in November because they were concerned "there may be unintended consequences with the original citizen’s referendum." They felt that "including the proposed amendment [Option B] may help the public better understand the nuances of this issue."
Other community organizations that serve and advocate for people experiencing homelessness (including Amistad, Community Housing of Maine, Milestone Recovery, Shalom House, and Through These Doors) have all expressed concern about Option A as well.
"The idea of smaller shelters sounds good, and it will undoubtedly be labeled 'the progressive choice'. But it is actually the most conservative choice – because it would most certainly keep things exactly the same as they are now. It is a vote to maintain the status quo.
The biggest loser would be people experiencing homeless-ness who will be stuck without an effective homeless service center.
Maine Voices, 10/16/2021
There is consensus among advocates and providers that the new Homeless Services Center is an absolute necessity and the right move for Portland. And there is also consensus that Option A will result in a loss of beds and services for people experiencing homelessness. Why?
Because while Option A advocates for "smaller shelters," there are, in fact, no plans for smaller shelters to be built in Portland - or anywhere in the region. There are no plans, no funds, and no people or groups stepping forward to create these facilities. But then, Option A has never been about creating shelters. It's always been about trying to block the new Homeless Services Center, a facility the region desperately needs to replace the Oxford Street Shelter. The HSC has already been approved by the Planning Board and is set to break ground this year.
But the authors of Option A have inserted a retroactivity clause seeking to make their 50-bed limit effective as of six months ago, in April 2021, in an attempt to invalidate the approval of the new Homeless Services Center. At present, it doesn't look like the retroactivity clause will, in fact, block the HSC, but the authors of Option A have already threatened legal action to try to do just that if Option A passes. This at a time when we are regularly seeing over 250* single adults seeking emergency shelter in Portland on a daily basis.
* NOTE: The 250+ figure only covers single adults. This is is in addition to individuals staying in the family shelter, domestic violence shelters, and teen shelters. Overall, we regularly have over 500 people seeking shelter services each day in Portland.
If Option A passes in November, and a judge finds that the retroactivity clause applies to the already approved Homeless Services Center, we will lose 150 shelter beds in the city.
And again: there are absolutely no plans to build multiple small shelters in Portland.
So, if Option A passes, some unidentified person, group, or organization will need to create plans for multiple smaller shelters, find sites for them in the city, deal with the inevitable neighborhood pushback and legal action each time a site is identified, go through the planning and permitting process, and then finance and construct all of these facilities. Such a process would take years - if not decades - to accomplish. And during that time, people experiencing homelessness will languish.
Make no mistake: a vote for Option A, while well-intentioned, will have numerous unintended consequences. That's why Homeless Voices for Justice, Shalom House, Amistad, Community Housing of Maine, and Milestone Recovery have all come out against Option A. They know Option A has the potential to decimate our social services network here in Portland and hurt the very people it purports to help.
Option B: Increased safety, access, and services
Option B, on the other hand, will increase the safety and service requirements for shelters, and will ensure shelters have the day space necessary to offer essential wraparound services on site. Option B will also make sure that shelters are good neighbors, and that both shelter guests and shelter abutters have safe and respectful spaces in which to reside, whether that residence is temporary (as in emergency shelter) or long-term (permanent housing abutting an emergency shelter).
One last thing.
To more fully understand the differences in these two Options and the impact they will have, it's helpful to understand a little bit about the current regulations around emergency shelters in Portland.
Right now, emergency shelters can be established in the areas indicated on the map below (in the green, pink, purple, yellow, and red zones). But emergency shelters can be established in these areas if—and only if—they meet specific conditions laid out in the City Code.
The conditions that emergency shelters have to meet are detailed in City Code Chapter 14, section 6.5.6.B. These conditions were put in place in 2017, primarily in response to the poor configuration and lack of on-site services at the Oxford Street Shelter. Basically, they are as follows.
All new emergency shelters in Portland must have:
In addition to meeting the above conditions, new emergency shelters also need to meet all of the conditional use standards spelled out in Chapter 14, Section 6.5.2 as shown at right. (The standards in 6.5.2 are not impacted by either of the referendum options.)
With all of this in mind, go ahead and take another look at the side by side comparison of how Option A and Option B would each impact the existing regulations for emergency shelters in Portland. Once you've done that, it should be quite clear that a vote for Option A would be devastating to our social safety net. It would continue the status quo, which is inadequate, inhumane, and unacceptable, and it would place numerous people experiencing homelessness in peril.
6.5.2 General conditional use standards (paraphrased)
The proposed conditional use will not have substantially greater negative impacts than would normally occur from surrounding uses or other allowable uses in the same zone. Things the Planning Board would look at to ensure this is the case include:
The volume and type of vehicle traffic to be generated; hours of operation, expanse of pavement, number of parking spaces required ;
The amount of of noise, glare, dust, sewage disposal, emissions to the air, odor, lighting, or litter that might be generated by the proposed use.
The design and operation of the proposed use, including but not limited to landscaping, screening, signs, loading, deliveries, trash or waste generation, arrangement of structures, and materials storage
So when you go to the polls - or fill out your absentee ballot - be sure to Vote for Option B on Portland's Question 1. Let's continue to improve our homeless services in an achievable and sustainable manner that will provide superior service and help more people transition from homelessness to stable housing.
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.