Officials perform a ceremonial groundbreaking on Riverside Street in Portland on Tuesday, March 29, 2022, at the site of the city's new, 208-bed homeless shelter. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

PORTLAND, Maine — Mayor Kate Snyder had a clear message on Tuesday as city officials gathered to break ground for a long-awaited, $25 million, 208-bed homeless shelter on Riverside Street.

Snyder said her city is doing its part to help Mainer’s experiencing homelessness and it’s time the state government and other communities did the same.

“Portland takes the people sent here because we have the shelter,” she said. “When other towns send their folks here they are deferring their obligation.”

To make her point clearer, Snyder then offered to repeat her statement to any members of the press not writing fast enough.

“It’s also a state obligation, through the general assistance program,” she added.

City officials, bankers, developers and members of the public gather at a Portland construction site for a groundbreaking ceremony on Tuesday, March 29, 2022. The city-owned parcel on Riverside Street was chosen as the site for a new, 208-bed homeless shelter. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

Unlike most cities, Portland runs its own shelters. The city opened its first, 50-bed shelter in December 1989 after a free shelter provided by the county jail closed.

Since then, Portland has gained a reputation as a generous place to get help, whether you’re coming from eastern or northern Maine, or as an asylum-seeker from central Africa.

Currently, the city leases the Oxford Street Shelter which houses up to 154 people per night. Portland also houses families in a building on Elm Street as well as in local motels.

All told, Portland shelters around 1,200 people per night, Snyder said.

The new homeless services complex is expected to be finished in about a year. It’s on a city owned parcel of land at 654 Riverside St., between a tree-trimming service and a garbage dumpster company. Behind the parcel is a system of walking trails and the Presumpscot River.

Portland Mayor Kate Snyder speaks at a city homeless shelter groundbreaking ceremony on Riverside Street on Tuesday, March 29, 2022. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

The site is six miles from the current shelter.

The location was approved in June 2019 after a contentious search with roots stretching back to 2015. An effort to block construction of the large shelter was shot down by voters in November.

City staff had already issued a request for building proposals in February 2021 and the City Council selected Developers Collaborative in June 2021.

Once built, Portland will finance most of the building cost by signing a 25-year lease. The city paid $6.5 million in upfront costs, with $3.5 coming from federal American Rescue Plan Act funds and the balance coming from Cumberland County ARPA funds.

According to Portland city officials, the new facility, just a few hundred yards from the Westbrook city line, will provide “wrap around” homeless services currently available at scattered locations around the Bayside neighborhood. Service partners with space at the new shelter are expected to include Preble Street, Amistad, The Opportunity Alliance, and the Greater Portland Health clinic.

The new building will also include meals, day shelter space, workforce training, housing counseling services, mental health and substance use services.

Ceremony attendees walk down a path leading to a construction site in Portland where officials broke ground on Tuesday, March 29, 2022, for a new, 208-bed homeless shelter. The site is on Riverside Street, near the Westbrook city line. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

Currently, the city shelter is located inside an aging, converted three-story apartment building. Inside, guests sleep on thin mats, inches from each other, on the floor. The new, 51,000-square-foot, shelter is expected to have real beds.

Snyder said she’s proud of what her city is doing and hopes lawmakers in Augusta will also lead a state-wide, coordinated effort to help.

“While I am glad that we will have a new way in which to serve our most vulnerable people, it is not lost on me that the homelessness crisis is complex, multifaceted, and dynamic,” Snyder said. “We know that piecemeal, siloed responses by individual communities do not work. We are at a critical juncture in which real, workable, systemic solutions are needed.”

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Troy R. Bennett

Troy R. Bennett is a Buxton native and longtime Portland resident whose photojournalism has appeared in media outlets all over the world.