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South Portland renews licenses to allow hotels to house people in need

South Portland City Council voted to renew licenses with four hotels housing people experiencing homelessness or seeking asylum.

SOUTH PORTLAND, Maine — The South Portland City Council voted, in a meeting that lasted past midnight Wednesday morning, to renew licenses with four hotels housing people who are experiencing homelessness or seeking asylum.

The Comfort Inn, Days Inn, Quality Inn, and Howard Johnson have contracts to help house people, many of whom would otherwise overburden area shelters.

The council awarded the licenses for the Days Inn and Comfort Inn with conditions, requiring 24-hour security and an on-site services coordinator. The Howard Johnson will need a coordinator as well. 

This decision was necessitated because of the high number of emergency calls consistently been made from the hotels during the pandemic. Last year, the Comfort Inn averaged 73 calls per month, the Days Inn produced 43, the Quality Inn had 30, and the Howard Johnson had 25.

City Manager Scott Morelli told the council that evidence shows asylum seekers have, overwhelmingly, not been the cause for illegal activity that has required a call to 911 emergency services. He advocated for the conditions placed on the licenses, saying they could get people mental health or substance abuse services before 911 is needed.

"That's why we're continuing to recommend those services be enhanced going forward, because even though the calls have gone down, they are still way above what they were in 2017, 18, and 19 – way above," he explained. "And, so, we need to do more for the folks that are staying in these residences; and a reminder that these conditions go away if the clientele changes back to tourists."

Aside from the conditions, these are ordinary lodging establishment licenses, granted by city councils like liquor licenses and other standard authorizations. The license allows a hotel to operate in the city if its management chooses to.

In February, we reported that New Gen Hospitality Management LLC, the parent company of the Comfort Inn and Days Inn, would not renew its contract with the Maine Housing Authority, set to expire may 31.

As of Thursday, that was still New Gen's plan, according to MaineHousing Director Dan Brennan. New Gen did not respond to a Thursday request for comment.

282 people experiencing homelessness are still staying at the two hotels, according to MaineHousing's latest data. Despite the fact his office is working to help local agencies to find new housing for all of those people, Brennan said all hotel owners who have housed people in need are unsung heroes. He added that they were never a long-term solution.

"Hotels are not optimal housing, and I think everybody would recognize that," he said.

Among a number of physical and mental health services, the on-site coordinators prescribed in the hotels' new license agreements are supposed to help transition clients into new, more permanent housing.

When asked, Brennan said he believed New Gen would honor the license conditions laid out by the city council, even if they had long since planned to stop providing housing to Mainers in need.

"My understanding is everyone is acting in good faith on this," he said.

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