Portland officials are recommending that a 200-bed homeless service center be built on a parcel of city-owned land at the Barron Center campus on Brighton Avenue, close to the city’s border with Westbrook.

The new facility would replace the cramped and outdated Oxford Street Shelter, which, along with other social service agencies, has contributed to growing concerns in the city’s Bayside neighborhood.

City Manager Jon Jennings made the announcement in an interview Thursday and will formally present his recommendation next week to the City Council’s Health & Human Services and Public Safety Committee. It the move happens, it would mean the city would be without a homeless shelter downtown for the first time in 30 years.

“We all think the facility on Oxford Street … well, it certainly doesn’t represent the values the city has,” Jennings said. “Staff has done an amazing job there, but it’s time to move on.”

The recommendation still has to go through a number of steps, including City Council approval and rezoning, and a new building is not likely to be ready before 2020. The estimated cost is $10 million, although that could be less at the recommended site because the city already owns the land. The financing is still being debated, but Jennings envisions a public/private partnership.

Both Jennings and Rob Parritt, the director at Oxford Street, said a new center would give the city an opportunity to overhaul how it provides services to the region’s homeless population.

“We’re turning what you see on Oxford Street on its head,” Jennings said. “What we’re not doing is moving Oxford Street to this location. It’s a completely different model. What we’re doing is broken and it’s been broken for some time.”

MORE SERVICES, LESS CONCENTRATED

Portland’s Oxford Street Shelter would be closed under city officials’ proposal for a new facility on the Barron Center campus.

In practical terms, the new location would have more beds – 200 instead of 154 – and they would all be beds, not just mats on a floor, as is the case for many at Oxford Street. It would have separate areas for men and women.

Parritt said the bigger space also would allow his staff to better collaborate with other service agencies and provide services such as health and dental care that simply aren’t options at the current site. The location on a major city artery, Brighton Avenue, means public transportation is accessible, he said.

Last year, Oxford Street Shelter transitioned to a 24-hour facility to better assist clients, and the new center would continue that.

“We think it checks a lot of boxes, but one of the biggest things will be just not being in such a densely packed residential area,” Parritt said. “It’s going to be able to keep things a lot safer. You won’t see the giant crowds you have now, which sort of puts these folks on display.”

The move would not affect the city’s family shelter on Chestnut Street, which is separate from Oxford Street.

Currently, many homeless in the city congregate in Bayside because of its concentration of services, including the shelter, the Preble Street social services center and the city’s general assistance office, among others.

A special report published last month in the Maine Sunday Telegram explored the growing problems in the neighborhood, which have prompted some Bayside residents to pressure the city to take action.

The discussion also comes at a time when Portland is seeing a record number of people using its emergency shelters. In March and April, the average number of people staying in emergency shelters throughout the city exceeded 520 individuals on an average night, including about 300 individual adults and about 200 people who were with family members. That surpasses a record set in 2013, when the daily average in a single month topped 500 for the first time, according to city statistics.

DEFINING WHAT’S THE BEST SITE

Any potential move is likely to affect Preble Street, which has shouldered most of the day services for the homeless population. The nonprofit agency, in a statement, praised Jennings for taking an aggressive approach to fixing a growing problem.

In April, a man sleeps in a parking lot near the Oxford Street Shelter in Portland. A proposal calls for building a new city shelter away from the concentrated homeless services in Bayside.

“We’re very pleased the city is making progress in relocating the Oxford Street Shelter, which like (Preble Street) was designed over 25 years ago to serve far fewer people,” the statement says. “Like everyone else, we have just this week learned of the specific property in question – the Barron Center on outer Brighton Avenue. We need to learn more specifics and hear what clients think of the location.”

City Councilor Belinda Ray, who chairs the Health & Human Services and Public Safety Committee, said she thinks there will be strong support among councilors for the recommendation.

“We weren’t trying to go in any particular direction, we were only trying to find the best location to make this a humane facility for people who are in transition,” she said.

Mayor Ethan Strimling said he agrees with the need to change the service model, but wants to make sure that location is the best option.

“It’s no secret I’ve expressed concerns in the past on having a shelter on the outskirts (of the city), but I’m looking forward to learning more, particularly from the clients we serve.”

Strimling said adding services at the new shelter is welcome, but the city can’t meet all needs at one location and many other agencies remain downtown.

Jennings said he firmly believes that clustering social services doesn’t work.

Carolyn Silvius of Homeless Voices for Justice said her initial reaction to the shelter plan is that the city is trying to hide the homeless. “Don’t be ashamed of the homeless,” she said.

“Not everyone has to be in Bayside to access services,” he said. “I think that’s a false narrative.”

The potential move from downtown to the city’s outskirts is similar to a move three years ago by the state’s Department of Health and Human Service building from Marginal Way to a new spot near the airport in South Portland. Many service agencies criticized that move as a way to make it harder for people to access state resources.

Carolyn Silvius, a member of Homeless Voices for Justice who was at a shelter for about 10 months more than a year ago, said her initial reaction to the proposed new site is that the city is trying to hide the homeless.

“Don’t be ashamed of the homeless, be ashamed of yourselves for letting things get to this point,” she said of city leaders.

The proposed new shelter would share a campus with the Barron Center, which was first built as the city’s hospital and is now a nursing home and rehab facility. The family who created the Barron Center had previously operated an “alms house” that provided services to the poor.

“This is really an extension of that and it really values their vision,” said Dawn Stiles, the city’s director of health and human services.

IMPACT ON NEIGHBORS, WESTBROOK

Maya Lena, who represents the Nason’s Corner Neighborhood Association, said she was notified by city staff this week about the proposed site, but no one was included in the discussion. She said she expects residents there to have opinions.

“My hope is that the city will be open to listening to neighbors,” Lena said.

Jerre Bryant, city administrator in Westbrook, said the proposed location “certainly” raises concerns for his city.

“I think we need to learn more before we pass full judgment,” he said. “But the initial concern would be making sure this move is done in a way that provides immediate access to a wide range of support services to not just house the homeless, but turn their lives around and help make them more self-sufficient.”

Once the city opens a new homeless center, it would end its lease at Oxford Street, allowing that property to be repurposed.

A public hearing on the recommendation has been scheduled for July 10.

Eric Russell can be contacted at 791-6344 or at:

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