In this Aug. 10, 2020, file photo, a youth-led march against homelessness makes its way up Franklin Street in front of the luxury Verdante condominium project in Portland. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

PORTLAND, Maine — The Portland City Council on Monday will decide whether to issue a moratorium on new homeless shelters in one of the city’s most contested neighborhoods.

Urged by a cohort of neighborhood activists, a health and human services committee wants a targeted moratorium prohibiting the construction of new shelters in Bayside for half a year.

The proposal hopes to provide “respite, relief and acknowledgement to Bayside residents that to many, they’ve shouldered an incredible burden over the last decade,” Councilor Mark Dion said at a recent health and human services committee.

Councilors also want to strengthen licensing requirements for new and existing homeless shelters, which providers have strongly opposed, but will tackle a moratorium first, taking it up in an emergency hearing on Monday, May 17.

As homelessness has surged in Portland, a result of widespread economic disparity, the opioid crisis and displacement by skyrocketing housing costs, so have efforts to push existing homeless shelters out of neighborhoods that have long served as safety nets.

A majority of Portland’s shelter beds are concentrated in Portland’s Bayside neighborhood. In fact, that was the plan. In a comprehensive neighborhood plan issued two decades ago, city officials called Bayside “a vital social service network” where “homeless shelters and related services will remain.”

Lobbying efforts by neighborhood groups and developers are now challenging that idea. Other neighborhoods in Portland, like East Bayside and Munjoy Hill, have undergone massive transformation in the two decades since, turning enormous profits for property owners and developers and suggesting Bayside is ripe for similar growth. Major developers have bought up Bayside buildings in open anticipation of shelters leaving the area, while a neighborhood association headed by area property owners went on the offensive years ago, documenting “messy and chaotic” behavior of people seeking services in the neighborhood.

The latter effort has been spearheaded by Sarah Michniewicz and Jim Hall, a married couple who live on Cedar Street and serve respectively as president and treasurer of the Bayside Neighborhood Association. The couple has been instrumental in flagging the neighborhood’s homeless population as a crisis situation, saying residents “selflessly shoulder much of Maine’s responsibility for addressing homelessness, no matter the cost.”

People experiencing homelessness in Portland are more likely than the general population to be racial minorities, and more likely to suffer from substance use disorder and other mental health disorders, according to City staff. The neighborhood has also generated a disproportionate share of calls for service to the Portland Police Department.

Oliver Bradeen, the executive director of Milestone Recovery, which operates a shelter elsewhere in the city, worried about a “slippery slope” effect that a targeted moratorium would bring. Commenting at a recent health and human services committee meeting, Bradeen said he had not heard of anyone planning to open shelters in Bayside in the next six months, and worried that tightened regulations “might impact our ability to meet the needs of our neighborhood.”

Angus Ferguson, a Portland lawyer who often represents people experiencing homelessness, doesn’t see a moratorium on shelters or strengthened licensing requirements helping his clients.

Ferguson railed against “discrimination that borders on hatred for people who are caught up in circumstances that are the worst fears of those of us who are a rung or three up the social ladder,” adding that many of his clients are caught up “in a perfect storm of job loss, divorce, eviction, loss of driver’s license or car insurance … family strife or immigration status.”

Stringent licensing for shelters serving the homeless will result in fewer of them getting built, Ferguson said, because it will give more tools for “NIMBY” property owners and those who discriminate against people experiencing homelessness. He advocates for a model of scattered smaller shelters around the city, contrasting the city’s plans to build a 200-bed homeless services shelter on the outskirts of town.

Not everyone in Bayside is for the move either. George Rheault, a Bayside resident and homeowner since 2015, objected to the moratorium. Rheault argued that his neighbors are motivated by seeing a return on investment from purchasing buildings in the Bayside neighborhood.

“I, like every other Bayside property owner, bought with full knowledge of the New Vision For Bayside plan,” Rheault said, referring to the city plan which described the neighborhood as a “social service resource network” among other civic functions.

According to the relevant passage in that plan, “Bayside will continue to fulfill its role as the hub of a social service network of considerable value to the city, the region and the state of Maine. The homeless, the disabled, and those in poverty rely on these services for survival and hope. Vital services such as the homeless shelters and related services shall remain in this area.”

The plan was authorized by then-mayor Nick Mavodones, who currently sits on the council.

It’s not uncommon that neighborhoods will try to keep shelters out when they feel overburdened, said Nan Roman, executive director of the National Alliance to End Homelessness, a D.C.-based advocacy group. 

Higher-income or gentrifying neighborhoods tend to want to limit or reduce the number of social service facilities, Roman said, and have the wherewithal and connections to keep shelters out.

It’s “largely healthy for shelters to be scattered around the community and not concentrated in one place,” Roman said, adding that it can also be easier for people to access services when they’re closer together.

The feeling of being unfairly burdened by people experiencing homelessness isn’t only coming from anti-shelter Bayside activists — city officials say the same thing about Portland as a whole.

Tae Chong, chair of the city’s Health and Human Services Committee, said Portland “serves half the people who are experiencing homelessness in the state of Maine.” He called for adjacent towns of Westbrook, Scarborough and South Portland to “step up” and build shelters.

“No one is shouldering this burden except the city of Portland, and in the city of Portland, the only neighborhood that is doing this right now is Bayside,” Chong said.

It’s typical for people experiencing homelessness in rural areas to flock to cities like Portland because there’s a greater concentration of services there, Roman said. She added that the phenomenon is no different than migration trends among other demographics, such as suburbanites coming into Portland to work, go to the doctor or eat at a restaurant.

“Generally in cities, the percentage of people who aren’t homeless that are coming in is pretty much the same as the percentage of people who are homeless that are coming in,” Roman said.

While there are no direct plans for new shelters, a moratorium could have ripple effects. If passed, it wouldn’t affect existing shelter sites in Bayside, like Preble Street’s recently approved 40-bed emergency shelter at 5 Portland St. But it could clash with other developments. Small Shelters for Portland, a cohort of housing justice advocates working on behalf of people experiencing homelessness, is working toward getting a citizen’s initiative on the November ballot that would amend Portland’s land use ordinance to require all new shelters operate 24 hours a day while limiting the size of most new shelters to 50 beds.

Portland’s city council will take up the issue at a remote meeting on Monday, May 17 at 5 p.m.

Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated the name of the National Alliance to End Homelessness.