A homeless man sitting outside a coffee shop accepts cash from a customer on a bitter cold morning, Thursday, Jan. 31, 2019, in Portland. Credit: Robert F. Bukaty / AP

PORTLAND, Maine — A city proposal to tighten regulations on shelters serving homeless and vulnerable people has roused many in social services who say that the changes are “discriminatory” and reduce the number of shelter beds in Portland.

The draft set of licensing requirements would add density restrictions, performance standards and mandate that shelters share more case management information with police. But a city panel that works on homelessness opposed it unanimously on Tuesday.

While it has played out less publicly than in the past, this clash is an extension of the lengthy battle between Preble Street, a nonprofit in the Bayside neighborhood, to renovate an existing shelter and several neighbors who have opposed that effort, blaming the agency for the behavior of unhoused people who rely on services in the area.

It comes as the city’s plan to build a homeless services center far from its existing one in Bayside has pressed against a homelessness crisis exacerbated by the pandemic, skyrocketing housing costs and an opioid epidemic.

City Councilor Belinda Ray, who chaired the Health and Human Services committee until last November, said the licensing effort renewed under her watch is about increasing transparency for shelter operations and “making sure that shelters are good neighbors within neighborhoods.”

But the proposal she is leading drew unanimous opposition on Tuesday from the City’s Emergency Shelter Assessment Committee, a cohort of social service providers, case workers and officials that work on behalf of people experiencing homelessness, saying the rules would “work in direct opposition” to a 1987 city pledge that no one shall be homeless in Portland.

Preble Street and other shelters say they routinely share information related to criminal activity with police upon request. Adding more police oversight requirements that could impact their licensing renewals would disincentivize shelters from contacting police when necessary and put people at risk, Preble Street Executive Director Mark Swann has said.

“The vast majority of police calls in and around shelters are made by shelters themselves,” he said in February. “If they know their operations can be harmed if they make those calls, they may hesitate to do that and that will be a real disaster.”

Last summer, city officials began researching homeless shelter licensing requirements in other U.S. cities. That probe has led to a comprehensive overhaul of Portland’s city code regulating shelters. Ray framed the licensing push as a formal mechanism for shelters to respond to neighbors when they complain about unhoused people in the area.

“It’s about offering assurances to people that we have really strict standards for how shelters are going to operate, and that we have a mechanism that will allow us to work with shelters to make sure that in addition to providing good service, they’re being good neighbors” Ray said.

Preble Street’s proposal met a lengthy review process before passing in January, drawing loud opposition from property owners in Bayside, many of whom lobbied the city to deny Preble Street’s proposal under the banner of the Bayside Neighborhood Association.

“There’s a very real need for [shelter] applicants to prove they can and will proactively mitigate the known human impacts on the host community before being granted the privilege of operating a shelter in a residential neighborhood,” Jim Hall, who owns property on Cedar Street in Bayside, said in a February meeting.

Cullen Ryan, the director of Community Housing of Maine and an Emergency Shelter Assessment Committee member, says imposing new licensing regulations and unfunded mandates could threaten new and existing shelters and worsen the homelessness crisis, adding that four people experiencing homelessness died last week due to occupancy limitations.

The proposal “seems focused on protecting the public from people experiencing homelessness” rather than “strengthen[ing] existing protections serving vulnerable people,” Ryan said, adding that it is also “discriminatory based on income” and “likely in direct violation of fair housing laws.”

Ryan suggested that an alternative to the ordinance would be for city councilors to meet with homeless providers directly to address the concerns the ordinance seeks to address.

“It is not easy running homeless shelters and there is no money in this,” Ryan said.