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Portland voters to decide on size of new homeless shelters

Portland voters will see three options on their ballots this year as the city looks to build a 200-bed shelter in the Riverton neighborhood

PORTLAND, Maine — After years of review and debate, Portland is set to build a new homeless services center for the city to replace the aging Oxford Street Homeless Shelter. That decision however has been met with backlash from residents for years. This election cycle, Portlanders will now get to weigh in on crucial details, like capacity, for future homeless shelters for the city. 

This ballot question was brought forward as a citizens referendum after successful signature gathering. Advocates led by the group Smaller Shelters For Portland are advocating for a capacity of 50 beds for future homeless shelters for the city, including the new shelter set for Riverside Street in Riverton. 

Voters will be presented with three options. Option A, proposed by Smaller Shelter for Portland looks to limit capacity to 50 beds. Option B, endorsed by the Portland City Council would lower capacity to 150, and Option C would reject both other options, and keep current limits as is. 

Portland's referendum question will read as follows:

Do you favor one of the two (2) city ordinances summarized below: 'A' as proposed by citizen petition; 'B' as enacted by the city council; or should both be rejected as provided in 'C'? 

A: This proposed amendment requires all new emergency shelters to be opened 24 hours per day and, except for family and domestic violence shelters, provide shelter to no more than 50 individuals at a time. It adds a requirement for shelter management plans to include a Criminal Trespass Order policy and appeals process for residents. It also removes the requirements for shelters to: provide adequate space for security searches and other assessments; include plans for on-site surveillance and controls for resident behavior and noise levels; provide adequate access to and from METRO service; implement strategies to help guests utilize transit. 

B: This proposed amendment requires all new emergency shelters to be opened 24 hours per day and to have adequate indoor space to provide day shelter for all guests. It adds a requirement for shelter management plans to include a clear policy regarding Criminal Trespass Orders. It requires all emergency shelters to provide access to and from METRO service and to implement strategies to help guests use public transit. It requires individual emergency shelters to be located at least 1000 feet from one another, limits the size of individual shelters to a maximum of 150 beds except in situations when a shelter capacity emergency is declared, and limits the total number of individual shelter beds within a 1-mile radius to a maximum of 300. Domestic violence shelters which don't disclose their locations for safety reasons are exempt from both provisions. The proposed consolidation of the Joe Kreisler Teen Shelter and the Preble Street Teen Center into one facility at 343 Cumberland Avenue is also exempt from the buffer and density provisions. 

C: Neither of the two (2) proposed Amendments to the Portland City Code above.

RELATED: Portland residents collecting signatures for petition to limit size of homeless shelters

"A smaller shelter, scattered shelter approach would be a much better solution," Kim Cook, a former Portland City Councilor and volunteer with Smaller Shelters for Portland said. "The mega-shelter at Oxford Street hasn't worked in the Bayside neighborhood, it's not going to work in any neighborhood."

Cook is one of the many Portland residents that argue small shelters provide better outcomes for residents experiencing homelessness by providing more space, and attention from space. Cook said by voting for option A, it doesn't halt the proposed Homeless Services Center but would limit the number of people that can stay there overnight.

"There is a viable path forward. We could build the 50-bed shelter out on Riverside Street along with permanent supportive housing," Cook said. "It has to do with ensuring we are meeting the needs of folks experiencing homelessness."

Portland Mayor Kate Snyder disagrees however and said that option C or option B are the best paths forward for Portland.

"We have a persistent need of well over 200 beds, for emergency beds," Snyder said. "What's appealing about the Riverside parcel is that it's city-owned. It's big, the services center would be set back from the street, and there would be the ability to build those wraparound services."

According to the city's plan for the Homeless Services Center, open 24-hours a day, 7-days a week with on-site meals and a wide range of services including health and mental health care, substance use treatment, housing assistance, peer support, case management, employment assistance, and more. It would be located at 654 Riverside Street.

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