People tour a men's dormitory inside Portland's new homeless services center on Riverside Street on Wednesday, March 22, 2023. The facility will open to clients sometime next week. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

PORTLAND, Maine — The city’s gleaming new 50,000-square foot, $24 million, 208-bed, wraparound homeless services facility and shelter on Riverside Street starts accepting clients sometime next week.

The shelter will run out of beds on its first day.

“We’ll be at capacity on day one,” said Kristen Dow, director of the city’s Health & Human Services Department. “We are in a crisis in our city. We’ve received 800 asylum-seekers just since January 1.”

Dow spoke, along with other local officials and the property developer, at a grand opening and ribbon-cutting ceremony inside the new center on Wednesday.

Though the shelter won’t come close to meeting the needs of Portland’s unhoused population, Dow and others at the event said the one-stop homeless services center will make a big difference in the way homeless people in the city are treated, and how they get needed services.

The new shelter will house 208 people per night in three dormitories. Guests will sleep on simple, well-spaced beds, each with access to electricity for phone charging. In Portland’s current shelter on Oxford Street, 154 guests sleep atop thin matts on the floor, inches from their neighbors, in a converted apartment building. It’s filled to capacity each night, often with a line of people trying to get in stretching down the block.

In addition to dormitories, the new homeless services center will feature a cafeteria and job and housing counseling services, as well as a medical and dental clinic. There are also outdoor gardens and courtyards.

A sign at a grand opening ceremony points out the various rooms inside Portland’s new homeless services center on Riverside Street on Wednesday, March 22, 2023. The facility includes dormitories, a cafeteria, as well as health and dental clinics. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

The Oxford Street Shelter will close when the new shelter opens but the city will still continue to put people up in its downtown, 146-bed Family Shelter, as well as in school gymnasiums and motels in South Portland and Saco.

The new shelter was built, and is owned, by Portland’s Developers Collaborative.

According to collaborative principal Kevin Bunker, the project’s $24 million price tag came in at just about $1 million under budget. Of the total cost, city and state American Rescue Plan Act funds from the federal government footed $6 million. Bunker said his company took out an $18 million loan to fund the rest of the project.

Portland will lease the facility from Developers Collective at about $2.5 million per year, for the first 10 years. After that, the bill will drop to around $300,000 annually.

“After 25 years, we’ll sell it to the city for one dollar,” Bunker said.

People walk past the 154-bed Oxford Street Shelter in Portland, on Wednesday, March 22, 2023. The city’s new, 208-bed homeless services center and shelter will open next week on Riverside Street. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

Anya Caron, who also spoke at the ceremony, said she used to sleep at the Oxford Street Shelter before finding a stable place to live. Caron sees the new center as a step in the right direction.

“Ask someone who has spent any time at the Oxford Street Shelter,” she said. “They’ll tell you it sucks, it’s scary and unfair. It takes a lot of luck to get out of there and feels a lot like purgatory.”

But while praising the city’s efforts, Caron also brought up a recurring criticism about the facility’s location. It’s in an industrial zone on the outskirts of town, five miles from the current center of city homeless services in the Bayside neighborhood.

“A lot of people rely on the central location of the Oxford Street Shelter,” Caron said.

About an hour before the ribbon cutting ceremony, Brian French sat with a group of friends on a sunny street corner, on the other side of the city, in Bayside, where most current homeless services are located. French said he’s been homeless for about 10 years. He said he’d heard of the new shelter opening up but was unaware of just where it was located.

“All I hear is that it’s a big, beautiful place but I don’t have a vehicle,” French said. “I got no plans to move in there.”

Brian French, who been unhoused for 10 years, sits on a sunny street corner in Portland’s Bayside Neighborhood, the current epicenter of local homeless services, on Wednesday, March 22, 2023. French said he has no plans to visit Portland’s new homeless services center, five miles away on Riverside Street. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

He then picked up a guitar and improvised a song with lyrics including, “Riverside ain’t on my side, Riverside ain’t no place to hide.”

To address location concerns, the city will run a 15-passenger shuttle van on a continuous loop from the shelter to downtown, every day from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. It will make downtown stops at the Portland Public Library, the Department of Health and Human Services and the general assistance offices, among others.

“It’s just a 10 minute ride from here,” said Jason Chan, the new shelter’s assistant director of operations.

Chan also pointed out that there was also a regular city bus stop right in front of the new shelter and he could provide passes to guests who had verified downtown appointments. 

Looking around the new facility, the formerly homeless Caron said she was impressed.

“Portland’s homelessness problem will definitely be reduced — though not cured,” Caron said. “And it would be better if we could stop people from becoming homeless in the first place.”

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