Preble Street's plan to renovate its resource center to a 40-bed emergency shelter has received widespread public support. After months of deliberation, officials will consider the proposal for a third time on Jan. 5. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

PORTLAND, Maine — Police are pushing for a new camera surveillance system that would allow them “unfettered, real-time access” to view areas surrounding a proposed emergency shelter in Bayside that has drawn wide public support so far.

The police recommendation comes as nearly 1,100 people have emailed the city asking the planning board to approve a long-delayed proposal for a 40-bed emergency shelter from Preble Street, a nonprofit agency that assists people experiencing homelessness and others with low income. Only 36 have written to oppose the plan, many of them recent property owners in Bayside who complain of noise, litter and drug use in the area.

The surveillance system would give police more access to operations at Preble Street, which had previously handed over video upon request for police investigations. Police do not have real-time video access to city shelters, Chief Frank Clark said.

“Given this was in the planning phase for a new facility in an area of the city that accounts for a significant number of violent crimes, we were interested in enhancing real time access to those feeds that would allow us to monitor camera footage in public [not private] spaces, such as the streets and sidewalks around the perimeter of new shelter,” Clark said.

The full-service shelter would be socially distanced to observe pandemic safety protocols and cater to single individuals. The planning board will consider Preble Street’s conditional use application for a third time on Tuesday night. The nonprofit agency’s proposal for a 40-bed emergency shelter during the pandemic has been in limbo since the summer.

Many stressed the urgency of additional shelter in the area after deaths among people experiencing homelessness were up more than 60 percent in 2020, Preble Street reported last month.

Portland was housing more than 400 people in area hotels as of last month, mostly through General Assistance and CARES Act funding. Capacity at the city’s Oxford Street Shelter has been reduced to 74 beds because of the pandemic, while the city’s plans to use other facilities this winter have fallen through.

Preble Street Resource Center at 5 Portland St. in Bayside shut down operations in March due to the pandemic. Their proposal to renovate the existing site would change the facility’s operations from a drop-in center to a full-service facility, with registered guests. They have also proposed building a fence around the courtyard and installing four security cameras.

Tom, who is homeless and did not give his last name, wants the city to approve the shelter. A 20-year veteran, he struggles with PTSD “which in turn becomes a substance abuse issue,” he wrote in an email to the planning board last month that said “a group of us” live in the summer at area state parks that have now closed with water shut off for the season.

“In the winter outside it’s lonely, dark very early, and cold,” he wrote. “We would sleep in a warm area, have water to at least brush our teeth and wash our hands and have someone to talk to if we are having issues.”

Tom believes “the arrests for trespass” would drop because we would have a place to go when the cold becomes unbearable.

The city-run Oxford Street Shelter has 88 active criminal trespass orders issued to individuals, barring them from accessing city shelters for one year. Criminal trespass orders, or CTOs, have increased dramatically in the last two years. In November 2019, the city attributed the increase to a rise in methamphetamine use.

Tim Stokes, who has worked in a Bayside restaurant near the shelter for three years, said the shelter is a “point of relief for the homeless population and all of the business between Marginal Way and Monument Square.” He told the planning board that the shelter’s absence has meant more unhoused people have come inside the restaurant, sometimes maskless.

“Many of these people struggle with addiction, and without a place to reliably go at the end of the day they are more likely to use, becoming harmful to themselves and others, such as our staff and customers,” Stokes said.