PORTLAND, Maine — Like everything else in Maine’s largest city, Portland’s 35-year commitment to provide emergency shelter to all who need it was challenged by the pandemic.
City officials reduced capacities at its Oxford Street shelter and elsewhere to comply with health recommendations by the Center for Disease Control. The City has also used federal pandemic relief funding to shelter hundreds of people in area hotels during the pandemic — but that funding expires Dec. 31.
Important decisions are being made as well. City officials have wrangled with the question of where to put a new homeless shelter, or several of them, to replace its Oxford Street Shelter facility in Bayside, a converted apartment building which they say is poorly equipped for the task.
In a complex, non-ranked choice ballot question that may not reward the highest vote-getting measure, Portland voters will choose next week between three options for the city’s shelter system. But many decisions about how and where the unhoused are helped are left to the city council.
District 1 (2 candidates)
The president of the Bayside Neighborhood Association, Sarah Michniewicz has spent years criticizing Preble Street, a local nonprofit resource center for people experiencing homelessness. Arguing that Preble Street have not been “good neighbors,” she has led a cohort of homeowners in the neighborhood to urge the city to amend policies and spread its available shelter beds to other neighborhoods.
That advocacy also covers the city’s Oxford Street Shelter, which Michniewicz, a 50-year-old seamstress, wants to close in favor of a different facility located elsewhere in Portland. She strongly supports the proposed new homeless services center on Riverside, noting that the city and other organizations run four smaller emergency shelters on the peninsula.
“The plan for the Riverton service center fills a documented need and should go forward without delay,” she said, and “its construction doesn’t prevent private providers from proposing and building small specialty shelters.”
Her Bayside advocacy notwithstanding, she supports “strong public health programs, a focus on diversion and prevention, and increasing our stock of a wide variety of housing options in order to keep people out of homelessness,” she said.
Her opponent, Anna Trevorrow, is more sympathetic to the movement for smaller shelters and “supports the concept,” but ultimately favors the proposed 200-bed Riverside shelter as well, citing the humanitarian need to find a “dignified” daytime shelter for unhoused people.
“While not a perfect plan, the Riverside shelter would be a major improvement in many ways,” said Trevorrow, a 39-year-old paralegal who spent eight years on the city’s school board. “It is a planned Housing First model with wrap-around services and security, among other benefits.”
District 2 (2 candidates)
Jon Hinck, a 67-year-old lawyer who served six years in the Maine Legislature, supports the council and planning board’s efforts to build the homeless services center on Riverside Street, citing its plans for guests to access support for physical and mental health, nutrition, fitness and employment.
He also supports the City passing more “emergency responses” initiatives — such as it did last winter using pandemic relief funds to put hundreds up in area hotels — before the new year to help people get through the winter.
“The City should be prepared to put people up somewhere safe and secure when they have no other viable option,” Hinck said.
Victoria Pelletier, a 33-year-old racial equity and economic management specialist with the Greater Portland Council of Governments, links the urgency around the shelter questions to the city’s lack of affordable housing. She sees the recent spike in criminal trespass orders “creating barriers to entry” because they ban people in desperate need from shelters for a year, and advocates for more budgetary investments in social workers specializing in mental health and substance use crisis response.
She supports the referendum on smaller shelters, seeing the homelessness issue as “not a one-district problem.”
“Moving our unhoused community off-peninsula to Riverside so that they’re out of sight [and] mind for tourists feels like we are pushing a narrative of erasure onto the vulnerable Portlanders we claim to support,” she said.
At large (4 candidates)
Travis Curran, a 35-year-old retail manager at Maine Craft Distilling, is outspoken in his support for working-class Portlanders and those experiencing homelessness, calling the city’s practice of banning shelter stayers from shelters by giving them criminal trespass orders “inhumane, unacceptable and downright criminal.”
He criticized the planning board for approving the proposal for a large shelter facility without adequately consulting those who would be staying there.
“We shouldn’t be warehousing our [vulnerable] unhoused community on the Westbrook line,” he said. “Smaller shelters are safer, more humane, and don’t keep the lights on all night while you’re trying to sleep.”
Brandon Mazer, a 35-year-old lawyer who chairs the planning board, supports the Riverside facility, adding that the city has been working on it since he joined the planning board five years ago.
“One of the first issues we took up was looking at where emergency shelters could be located across the city,” he said, adding that the proposed facility — which includes a day space, 24/7 shuttle and other services is a major improvement over the city’s Oxford Street Shelter.
Mazer worries that if Question A prevails, it would functionally mean no shelters because plans for their locations and staffing are not ready..
“It has taken us many years to get to this point and I don’t believe we have the time to start over,” he said.
Roberto Rodriguez wants to “decriminalize homelessness,” pushing social service response alternatives to police as first responders.
“I believe that we’re moving away from people calling the cops because they want someone removed. Now we’re calling to find out how we get someone help,” said Rodriguez, a 42-year-old member and former Chair of the Portland School Board who owns an urban farming business.
He supports the plan for the Riverside shelter because alternatives “will delay our ability to provide services and I don’t feel comfortable with that because of how dire the need is.” He wants Portlanders to talk more about the facility’s operational budget, making sure that its guests have what they need to avoid emergency situations.
Stuart Tisdale, Jr., a 68-year-old lawyer and retired history and government teacher at Cheverus, a private Portland high school, believes that the proposal for smaller shelters is “the lesser of two evils” because it’s likely to cost less.
“It’s not fair that the Portland taxpayer should have to foot the bill for solving [homelessness], a problem that is generated in towns all over the state,” he said, citing a chief concern of outgoing City Manager Jon Jennings, who has pointed to shelter intake data to make the case that Portland is carrying an undue burden of Maine’s homeless population.
Tisdale has issues with the way the Riverside shelter deal is structured, and thinks renovating existing buildings would be a cheaper solution.
“Experts in caring for the homeless population have expressed a preference for smaller shelters, as have some homeless people I have heard from,” he said. “NIMBYism will be a factor, but that is another way of saying that most people do not favor Portland taking on the responsibility of solving homelessness for the state and beyond.”
Clarification: In an earlier version of this story, Travis Curran was quoted correctly but had misspoken. This has been updated to reflect the intention of his statement with the word “vulnerable.”