A fence around the Preble Street Resource Center courtyard was installed in late May to "help ensure the safety of clients while staff are temporarily pulled in other directions" during the pandemic. Preble Street plans to stop serving soup kitchen to-go meals from the building's back door on July 13 to prevent crowding, opting to distribute food to vulnerable populations at various sites in the city. Credit: Nick Schroeder | BDN

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PORTLAND, Maine — Preble Street Resource Center, one of the largest social service agencies in Maine, will shut down its to-go soup kitchen on Monday and shift to a mobile food distribution program that “brings food to people where they are.”

The initiative aims to provide basic food needs and dissuade crowds from gathering at its Bayside site during the pandemic, according to Ali Lovejoy, a program director at Preble Street.

Instead, caseworkers from Preble Street, in collaboration with workers from other agencies, will distribute food twice a day at nine different locations throughout the city to people experiencing homelessness.

Roughly a dozen COVID-19 cases have been linked to people who have stayed at city and nonprofit shelters since the pandemic reached Maine, a rate of contagion that many who work in the field fear could spike as shelter becomes more of a necessity once summer ends.

Preble Street closed its dining room in late March when COVID-19 hit Portland, distributing meals through its back door at 252 Oxford St. and shifting resources to help staff a 50-bed temporary shelter at University of Southern Maine’s Sullivan Gym.

Some staff who have worked there are heading the agency’s street outreach collaborative. Others will be relocated to positions within the agency as clients staying at Sullivan Gym move this week to city-operated shelters at the Portland Expo Building and Oxford Street Shelter.

Lovejoy hopes the mobile street outreach collaborative can streamline efforts to secure housing and emergency shelter for more people. Preble Street looked to food distribution models in Boston and elsewhere and consulted with other agencies that work with unsheltered populations to ensure that people don’t fall through the cracks.

Preble Street expects its map of food distribution site s might shift as the project gets underway.

“We’ve done as much theoretical running through as we can, but some things we won’t know until we’re out there,” Lovejoy said.

The program will be costlier to implement than the single-distribution site, largely due to rising food costs since the outset of the pandemic. The agency has served a record number of meals since the pandemic began, Lovejoy said.

Preble Street will continue to operate its food pantry, where people can pick up boxes of meat, potatoes, vegetables and dry goods from 1:30 p.m. to 4 p.m. five days a week. Prepared meals also will still be distributed daily to area shelters and the YMCA.