A fence keeps people out of Preble Street's courtyard in Portland on July 21. Preble Street's proposal to renovate their existing facility to a 40-bed wellness shelter will be heard by the planning board on Dec. 8. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

PORTLAND, Maine — City officials on Tuesday night will reconsider a plan to build a 40-bed emergency shelter for vulnerable people during the pandemic as Portland temporarily houses more than 300 people in area hotels.

It comes as a plan to shelter unhoused people in a repurposed jail facility fell through because of liability concerns, according to county commissioners.

After an emergency shelter provision expired at the end of October, city officials had hoped to relocate unhoused individuals staying at the Portland Expo building to a vacant “dorm-like” facility at the county corrections center intended for low-security inmates.

Preble Street wants to adapt its existing facility at 5 Portland St. to social-distancing guidelines with beds spaced 8 feet apart. It would function by day as a 24-hour shelter for 40 guests that includes showers, laundry, bathrooms, kitchen facilities and access to case workers and job boards. The proposal includes a security system. There would be a 9 p.m. curfew for shelter guests. 

Preble Street’s proposal has seen substantial delays. After closing in the spring because of pandemic-related restrictions, Preble Street’s bid to expedite plans for the facility was rejected by the City in July. The planning board considered the proposal in October before tabling it to Dec. 8.

Preble Street Director Mark Swann said he’s hopeful the setback with the corrections facility will prompt the city to embrace the proposal. Its proposed wellness center would specifically target those who cannot access city shelters or don’t feel welcome or safe there, Swann said.

There are currently 95 people restricted from the city’s Oxford Street Shelter for behavioral reasons, according to the city’s health and human services division.

“We’ve got the space, it’s zoned to allow for shelter use, and the city itself used it as an overflow shelter for most of the past 20 years,” Swann said. “We have the experience and track record, and we’re committing private fundraising for this new shelter, as well as having state dollars lined up. This proposed new wellness shelter will not cost the city 1 cent.”

The city jail facility could have provided a salve to the crisis of unhoused people in Portland, which has been forced to reduce occupancy at city-operated shelters to adhere to pandemic distancing guidelines. The City has a “Plan B in place” if the agreement fell through, spokesperson Jessica Grondin said in November, but did not elaborate.

Back in September, Mayor Kate Snyder and city officials said it was “not a sustainable practice” to be housing more than 200 individuals in area hotels because it “makes it difficult for folks to access services they need.”

But by Nov. 9, the city was housing 355 individuals in area hotels thanks to funding from state and federal vouchers and grants. Another 184 were staying at other city-operated shelters.

The proposed new homeless services site, planned for the Riverton neighborhood on the outskirts of the city, is unlikely to be built in time to help this winter.

A vast majority of the emails sent to the city are supportive of Preble Street’s proposal, according to documents released by the city, but the initiative has faced resistance from property owners, power brokers and other financial stakeholders in the neighborhood, including the Bayside Neighborhood Association.

Sarah Pluck, a Scarborough resident who owns three properties near the resource center that she purchased since 2013, has rallied against the proposal, calling the concentration of social services “severely damaging to our local economy.” Dan Hayes, president of the Santa Monica, California-based development firm Rock River Cos. which owns three buildings in Portland’s Bayside neighborhood, opposes the plan and decried the “hordes of zombies” in the area who lack stable housing.

Correction: An earlier version of this article implied that the ‘Plan B’ referred to the city’s proposed long-term homeless services site in Riverton and not the temporary emergency shelter at the correctional facility.