PORTLAND, Maine — Even if more Portland voters opt for smaller shelters in next week’s referendum, it might not be enough to derail the city’s plan to build a 200-bed homeless services center on the outskirts of town.
That’s because a municipal ballot question — asking voters to choose between two distinct measures that would regulate the construction of new homeless shelters in Portland, and a third option that does nothing — needs more than 50 percent of total votes to pass either of the first two options. In other words, if neither of the first two measures receive more than 50 percent of votes, the outcome is the same as if the third option prevails, according to city spokesperson Jessica Grondin.
That’s the city’s interpretation, Grondin said, citing Maine court rulings that have defined the term “majority” as “more than one-half” — not the simple majority, which could mean more ballots cast for any other measure.
With rising unaffordability, an opioid crisis and pandemic-related hardships facing vulnerable people in Maine, homelessness is an increasingly dire concern in Portland. City officials have pushed to replace the city-run Oxford Street Shelter for most of the last decade, and have tried to lay as much groundwork as possible for the construction of a new large-scale homeless shelter replacing it on the city’s outskirts.
But the fate of that plan hinges on next week’s referendum, which poses three different paths for how the city should proceed with its plan to shelter people experiencing homelessness.
The first is Option A, which could stop the construction of that facility outright. This measure is the preference of a citizen petition by Smaller Shelters for Portland, a group composed of unhoused people and allies, who gathered enough signatures to pose the question to voters on the November ballot.
If passed, it would amend the city’s land use ordinance to require new homeless shelters to be capped at 50 beds and open 24 hours a day, with clear policies informing shelter guests of behavioral criteria for receiving criminal trespass orders — which dramatically spiked in recent years — and their appeals processes. The number of criminal trespass orders have declined since the pandemic as the city reduced shelter capacity.
Option B is a competing measure drafted by exiting City Councilor Belinda Ray, which would impose strict licensing requirements on future shelters built in the city, such as limiting the number of beds within a square mile radius to 300.
Social service workers have criticized these licensing requirements, which they say add unnecessary hurdles for agencies working with unhoused people and could lead to more people sleeping outside. Option B is tailored to permit the 200-bed homeless shelter, which is currently under contract to be built with commercial real estate firm Developers Collective.
A third option, Option C, would change nothing, also clearing the way for the Developers Collective facility to be built. The firm’s founders have contributed $40,000 in advertising including signs that say Option A “hurts the homeless,” which have angered some advocates.
City officials have long wanted to replace the Oxford Street Shelter, an overnight shelter facility that typically fits 154 sleeping mats but has been operating at half capacity during the pandemic. Officials say the facility, a converted three-story apartment building and garage that’s been operating as a homeless shelter since 1995, is worn down and poorly equipped for the task.
In 2017, the city estimated the cost of a new 25,000 square foot facility at roughly $8 million, leaving its location to public debate. In 2019, the council moved ahead with plans to relocate the city’s homeless shelter to Riverside Street, a mostly business and industrial neighborhood in the Riverton neighborhood, off-peninsula and near the Westbrook border.
Last winter, the city put out feelers for developers looking to build the facility in a public-private partnership, settling on a proposal from local firm Developers Collective. In September, the planning board approved a lease for the facility, expanded to 51,000 sq. feet and estimated to cost up to $25 million.
Developers Collective co-founder Drew Sigfridson has touted the proposed shelter as one that can offer comprehensive services to unhoused people, including behavioral health, medical health, a soup kitchen and substance use counseling, and anticipates it would be ready before the winter beginning 2022.
Mayor Kate Snyder and the majority of the council prefer Option C because they don’t see adequate funding mechanisms or staffing to support a plan for smaller shelters.
“We’re not going to end homelessness by providing fewer emergency beds,” Snyder said in August.
She’s joined by some on the council’s more progressive wing. Councilor April Fournier, a case manager for Maine Behavioral Healthcare, said in September that despite concerns, she sees the Riverton shelter as a “harm reduction solution” for a “crisis situation.”
Adding to the issue’s complexity is a looming legal threat. Attorneys for the small shelter movement say an obscure provision in the city code be overturned by a people’s veto because they believe it was enacted fewer than 45 days before a citywide election.
The outcome cannot be repealed or amended for five years after the vote.