When Rob Parritt left his position as director of Portland’s Oxford Street Shelter in 2015, it wasn’t long before he wanted to come back.

“I started immediately missing it after I left, so once I found out there was an opportunity to come back I was happy to jump back in,” Parritt said in an interview this week.

Fighting homelessness on the front lines in Maine’s largest city was important work. And for nearly a decade, save for a year-long stint at MaineHousing, Parritt felt up to the challenge.

But over the years, the hourly demands and stress associated with the high-profile, high-stakes work has steadily increased, as have the number of people in need and the complexity of the problems they face.

It’s against that backdrop that Parritt, 37, is saying goodbye again.

On Oct. 19, Parritt will step down as director of the Oxford Street Shelter, which regularly overflows its 154-person capacity as Portland’s homeless population has surged to record levels in recent years. Parritt said the stresses of running an overwhelmed shelter have been wearing him down to the point where he hasn’t had time or energy to devote to his wife and three kids, whose ages range from 2 to 12.

“It was a really, really tough decision, but one I had been thinking about for a little bit,” he said. “There’s only so much in my well and mine is pretty much run dry. You can’t do my job once you get to that point.”

Along with mounting pressures on social safety net programs, Parritt’s departure comes as the city is embroiled in a community debate about relocating the city shelter. City staff has recommended building a 200-bed shelter at the city-owned Barron Center on Brighton Avenue near the Westbrook city line. But an outcry from Nason’s Corner residents forced councilors to explore other locations and other models, including as many as three shelters scattered throughout the city.

Parritt will continue to work on the shelter relocation project for the city on a contractual basis for the next six months, earning $34.81 an hour for up to 20 hours a week, the city said. Meaghan Void, the shelter’s assistant director of operations, will serve as interim director until the city chooses a permanent replacement.

The leadership transition also comes as Preble Street, a nonprofit agency that operates a resource center and soup kitchen only two blocks away, plans to scale back hours at its day shelter – a move that will inevitably increase demand at the city’s Oxford Street Shelter during the day.

“For as long as I’ve known Rob he’s put the whole of his heart into his work,” Donna Yellen, Preble Street’s interim executive director, said in an email. “He cares deeply for people experiencing homelessness, as well as for all those who are part of his life. The compassion and optimism he brings to making things better for people who are poor and struggling is something to be admired.”

City Manager Jon Jennings said Parritt’s departure is “truly a loss for the city.”

“It is never easy to lose good people,” Jennings said in a written statement. “However, I respect his decision and realize he’s making the right choice for his family. I’m thankful that he’s agreed to assist us as we move forward with our planning for a new homeless services center, as his expertise and institutional knowledge is invaluable to our efforts.”

Bob Fowler is executive director of Milestone Recovery, a nonprofit operating an emergency shelter for people struggling with substance abuse that works closely with the Oxford Street Shelter. He said the homeless community will miss Parritt’s passion, leadership and commitment to helping those in need.

“It’s a tremendous loss to the city,” Fowler said. “I think it speaks somewhat to the challenges of working on homeless services. It’s tough work for people to do that sort of work for a long time.”

William Higgins Jr., a former homeless man who now advocates on their behalf, has worked with Parritt on several committees, including the Statewide Homeless Council, Emergency Shelter Assessment Committee, Portland Continuum of Care.

“I always found him to be highly professional and dedicated to serve those in homelessness in the community,” Higgins said. “He will be missed, along with his dedication.”

Parritt began working at the city shelter back in 2008 as a housing counselor. He worked his way up to overnight supervisor, then weekend supervisor before becoming an assistant director under Josh O’Brien. He became shelter director when O’Brien left the city after 10 years for a position in Boston.

During those years, the number of people needing emergency shelter continued to rise. The city began accepting women at Oxford Street shortly after the Florence House, a housing development and shelter for women, opened in 2010. It’s at that point Parritt said the city began experiencing the overcrowding issues that continue to this day.

“We had the room at the time, so we absorbed the overflow for ladies and really that’s where our capacity issues kind of started and we never really got back to those nights where you would have under 100 people in the shelter,” Parritt said. The city now has to regularly use overflow spaces when Oxford Street hits capacity.

Parritt left the position in 2015. At the time, Portland’s emergency shelter and General Assistance programs were under intense scrutiny by the LePage administration. After state officials forced changes that ultimately led to a loss of funding, interim City Manager Sheila Hill-Christian questioned whether the city should be operating a homeless shelter. That prompted Parritt to take a job at MaineHousing.

When he returned, Parritt said he noticed a dramatic shift in the issues affecting the homeless population and a deterioration in the surrounding Bayside neighborhood in general. In addition to alcohol dependency and mental illness, the opioid epidemic had reared its head and staff had to quickly adjust to be more proactive in terms of security, installing outdoor restrooms and storage on site, and conducting outreach to local residents and people who were languishing on the streets and not interested in using the city’s services.

“I certainly noticed the opioid epidemic had really exploded during that time,” he said. “It wasn’t as chaotic back then. The issues you would deal with, instead of fatal overdoses and that sort of thing, somebody would have an open Natty Daddy (beer) in the courtyard, which wouldn’t even register today. If that’s the worst thing to happen today, that’s a darn good day at work.”

Sarah Michniewicz, who lives near the shelter and is the president of the Bayside Neighborhood Association, said she will miss Parritt, a fixture at neighborhood meetings.

Michniewicz said he was compassionate and sympathetic not only to shelter clients, but also neighborhood residents. One incident in particular drove home Parritt’s approach.

Last summer, after her surveillance camera captured graphic images of two people having intercourse in her driveway in broad daylight, Parritt helped identify the people involved. She said that, while the couple was issued a no-trespass notice, counselors worked to help the couple and eventually secured them housing outside of their own.

“He’s realistic about where people are at and their ability to follow certain rules,” she said. “But he never minimized the impact these issues were having on the quality of life in the neighborhood.”

Randy Billings can be contacted at 791-6346 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: randybillings

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