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South Portland could end program allowing hotels to house people at risk of homelessness

Those who care for the people sheltered in the hotels worry what will happen if the council revokes the licenses.

SOUTH PORTLAND, Maine — The South Portland City Council is scheduled to vote Tuesday night on whether to revoke the licenses of four hotels sheltering hundreds of people experiencing chronic homelessness and those seeking asylum.

A total of 730 people currently live in the hotels, according to City of Portland Health and Human Services Director Kristen Dow, and people seeking asylum make up 69 percent of that total.

The council is taking up the vote after South Portland's police and fire chiefs said it saw a "dramatic increase in complaints relating to public health, safety, and welfare, and also relating to unlawful conduct, at or near the locations at which some of these individuals are housed," according to South Portland's website

The city staff call that increase an "unsustainable burden on our public safety services." 

Those who care for the people sheltered in the hotels worry what will happen if the council revokes the licenses.

"People would scatter. It would be a crisis situation," Andrew Bove, vice president of social work for Preble Street, said. "People would be forced to seek out emergency shelter options when there aren't really many, or any available."

Bove said the city of Portland's Oxford, Chestnut, and Preble Street shelters are at capacity.

Ultimately, the city would shelter people in the facility under construction on Riverside Street that would hold 205 people. That will not be ready until early next year.

According to the website, South Portland city staff will not recommend the city council revoke any hotel licenses. 

"The city's goal is not to displace these families/individuals," the website reads.

"Some people will probably end up unsheltered, on the street," Bove said. 

"There was always that possibility unfortunately. That's what we're trying to avoid," Dow said. "Shelter is the most critical need. It is the very first thing that we try to make sure people have."

Dow said Portland staff tried to secure other temporary locations, including a facility on Blueberry Lane in Portland, but ultimately could not finalize the plans. 

City of Portland workers have been staffing the Days Inn 24/7, she said. Preble Street has a daytime case manager at Comfort Inn, Bove said.

"In both of those situations we've seen that the staff presence there can really help lower guest needs and address any unintended community impacts," Bove said.

The licenses for the Casco Bay Hotel and Howard Johnson hotel are also under consideration on Tuesday night. 

Thirty-nine people that cities other than Portland placed at the Casco Bay Hotel  also are at risk of losing their shelter.

Three hundred eighty of the 392 people at the Howard Johnson -- 97 percent --  are asylum seekers.

"It definitely ratcheted up the anxiety a little bit knowing that the stakes are even larger," Bove said. 

The service providers such as Preble Street, city of Portland HHS staff, and more received documents Monday afternoon from South Portland city manager Scott Morelli. Those documents outline the tentative agreement the city has reached with New Gen Hospitality, which operates Howard Johnson, Comfort Inn, and Days Inn.

None would immediately go on record to share what those conditions contain. The New Gen Hospitality Group, which operates the Days Inn, Comfort Inn, and Howard Johnson, and Northeast Property Group, which operates the Casco Bay Hotel, have not yet responded to NEWS CENTER Maine's requests for comment on the situation.

The City plans to recommend a number of conditions hotels will have to follow to keep their licenses.

City staff are only telling certain stakeholders in advance, so that council members can treat this issue as impartially as possible.

Dow said she has already drafted plans to staff the Days Inn and Comfort Inn.

She said she feels confident they can staff all the hotels with nurses, behavioral and mental health care, and case management with help from community organizations.

It is unclear whether those draft proposals match or meet the conditions South Portland sent to stakeholders.

"I hope that the solution that comes up is a doable solution because there are people's lives at stake," Dow said.

"The folks in these hotels, they don't want to be living there," Bove said. "When people are stable in housing, that allows you to work on other things that can help get them out of homelessness."

The state of Maine is already planning to fund up to $2.5 million to address this housing crisis.

Officials familiar with these issues told NEWS CENTER Maine the state is willing to consider additional support, including money, to help at the other two locations.

South Portland city manager Scott Morelli declined to do an interview with NEWS CENTER Maine ahead of Tuesday's hearing.

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