SOUTH PORTLAND, Maine — Following hours of debate, the South Portland City Council voted unanimously Tuesday night to grant licenses to four hotels serving as shelters to hundreds in the city with new conditions to improve public safety.
The vote came after South Portland's police and fire chiefs said they 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.
City staff called the increase an "unsustainable burden on our public safety services."
A total of 730 people 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.
Those living at the hotels in attendance Tuesday were worried if councilors revoked licenses for the four hotels, including the Days Inn, Comfort Inn, Howard Johnson, and Casco Bay Hotel.
"We don't have family here or other place to go. We don't have income yet because we can't work right now. We applied for asylum seeker and [are] waiting," a woman staying at one of the hotels said at Tuesday's hearing. "My husband and I are trying to improve ourselves, studying, still learning English, doing some trainings, volunteering, but if we do not have a safe place to stay how can we improve it?"
Many stakeholders and citizens also spoke up at Tuesday night's meeting to voice concerns about a lack of support, and fear people would be left out on the streets.
"I'm pleading with the city councilors, and even the chief of police, who are here today to really come together with many stakeholders to try to find a solution with all of us together, instead of again, pushing some of these folks away," Claud Rwaganje with the organization Prosperity Maine told councilors.
South Portland Police Chief Daniel Ahern repeatedly noted that most of the calls received were not from asylum seekers.
Ahern detailed a list of conditions for each hotel license that were agreed on by city staff, stakeholders and attorneys for the companies that own the hotels.
Those conditions include:
- 24/7 security details at Days Inn and Comfort Inn
- More mental health resources
- Fines of up to $500 per night per guest for hotels that allow guests to stay beyond March 1, 2023, which is the expected date the Portland Homeless Services Center on Riverside Street is set to open. The hotel would be forced to pay the city, but the city could ask the agency that placed the guest to reimburse it.
- Welfare checks at least twice daily, and a log of guests and the agencies that placed them there.
Preble Street vice president of social work, Andrew Bove, worries some of those details could expose a person's private health information.
"Certain agencies are domestic violence agencies or agencies that work with HIV positive people and so by disclosing the name of the agency and the persons name, you're really kind of outing their status as a potentially protected class," Bove said.
He said he felt the city council was receptive to community organizations' feedback about their concerns to some of the conditions.
Another change is the dial-out number. Right now in hotels, that number is 9.But many people making international calls need to dial 1, 1 to start their call, which the police chief said to a lot of unintentional 911 calls.
Now, they are changing the dial out number to 8.
"The city's goal is not to displace these families and individuals," Ahern said. "By providing better support to these guests and utilizing additional strategy, the city believes it can reduce the call volumes and eliminate and reduce the types of calls that are most detrimental to the health and safety of the guests and public."
The City of Portland released a statement to NEWS CENTER Maine stating:
"We are thankful that the hotels will continue to be able to provide this critical emergency shelter. We are slightly concerned about some of the restrictions, mostly the timeline, but look forward to continuing to work with our partners as we seek to meet the needs of the community."
Many at the meeting were frustrated the burden was falling on the City of South Portland alone and asked what the state was doing to help.
In an email Tuesday, Greg Payne, Senior Advisor on Housing Policy for the state, wrote:
"How much of that $2.5 million is ultimately used depends on the number of homeless individuals who reside in the hotels through next February and agreed upon costs with the service providers.
"Funds from the State have been designated for specific services to support homeless individuals, as long as they reside in one of the hotels. If a homeless individual no longer resides in the hotel, they would no longer receive those specific services supported by the State (they could still receive services elsewhere, depending on where they reside next)."
Payne said that money cannot pay for any potential penalty costs.
Officials familiar with the issue told NEWS CENTER Maine this week that the state is willing to consider additional support.