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Portland, Maine, Hopes to Untangle Homeless Shelter Needs by Vote

The state’s largest city has seen its unhoused population surge since the start of the pandemic. Voters can choose from three options to fix the problem by either building one large shelter or a series of smaller ones.

Lawn signs in Portland, Maine, about competing homeless shelter ballot measures.
Competing homeless shelter ballot measure signs in Portland, Maine. (Jake Blumgart/Governing)
It’s election season in Portland, Maine, but the issue dominating the ballot is not a race for public office.

As evidenced by the campaign signs studding the city’s sidewalks and lawns, a ballot question about the future of homeless shelters in the city is capturing the lion’s share of attention.

Huge wooden signs encouraging people to “Vote C,” and that any other choice will hurt the homeless, are flanked by smaller handwritten counterparts reading “UNTRUE: that sign is paid for by developers who want to build a mega shelter.”

As the largest city in the state, with a walkable core, plentiful shops, and a cluster of services, Portland has long been a center of the unhoused population in Maine. The economic and social dislocation of the pandemic increased the population last year among those sleeping rough in this city of over 66,000. The consequences have been tragic: at least 64 people died from exposure over the course of 2020.

That’s a sharp increase from previous years, because there are a lot more people living on the streets than usual. 

“I don’t think people realize how many people we have in our [shelters and city-paid hotels] right now,” said City Councilmember Tae Chong at a meeting the night before Election Day. “We had about 800 people in September in our system. That’s a huge number.”

At issue is a long-planned 208-bed shelter on the outskirts of town, where it was sited after neighborhood pushback scrapped an earlier proposal. Portland’s current adults-only emergency shelter on Oxford Street is out-of-date, and guests have to sleep upon mats laid on the floor.

“It’s just not a very humane situation,” says Jessica Grondin, spokesperson for the city.

But an array of activists, including some formerly unhoused people, organized a citizens initiative referendum petition seeking to force officials to replace the large shelter with a series of smaller ones. They agree the current shelter needs to be replaced, but they don’t like a city plan that they say will “warehouse” unhoused people.

These opponents of the proposed shelter say it keeps the homeless population far away from the city’s core and easy access to services and jobs. The option they back — Option A — would limit the size of city shelters to 50 beds. Option B, put forward by the City Council, would limit future new shelter capacity to 150 beds. Option C would leave things as they are.

“Large shelters have been proven time and time again not to be best practices,” says Carolyn Silvius, a representative of Smaller Shelters for Portland, who was unhoused at one time. “People tend to fall through the cracks, because there are too many of them.”

Silvius says that the city would have to worry less about NIMBYism under their proposal, because neighborhood opponents are concerned about a large number of unhoused people cycling through their block. She argues 50-person shelters would face less backlash.

She may be underestimating the opposition to new sites. Homeless shelters of any kind often face neighborhood enmity, no matter their size or the population they are trying to serve.

“The mere fact that it’s taken us three-plus years to work on this one location is evidence [of how hard it is to site shelters],” says Grondin. “Absolutely, starting over again could take years. That’s not time we have. It’s beyond time to be out of the Oxford Street location.”

Grondin says that there are already other shelters in the city, focused on living quarters for families, women, and those recovering from substance abuse or domestic assault. But those providers are already pushed to the limit, and are largely supporting the 208-bed option that the city’s been working on.

The city estimates that a central shelter with 200 beds would cost $4.7 million to run, while a proposal for five sites with 40 beds a piece would cost $10 million in operating expenses.

On Monday night, the City Council unanimously voted to move forward with leasing out the space for the new shelter. A lawsuit is expected if Option A is approved, as the city argues that the ballot initiative rests on tenuous ground. But if none of the options breach 50 percent of the vote, then regulations will remain as they are.

The city chose a developer to build the shelter, and then plans to lease it back so that the municipality will operate and staff it. The real estate interests involved have spent $40,000 promoting a “Vote C” campaign. The smaller shelter campaign didn’t even get a fourth of that support, but $1,000 of it came from the owner of a housing development on the block where the city-backed shelter would be located.
Jake Blumgart is a senior writer for Governing and covers transportation and infrastructure. He lives in Philadelphia. Follow him on Twitter at @jblumgart.
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