Dozens of residents voiced voiced opposition Monday night to both locations for a new 150-bed shelter in Portland and urged the City Council to start over.

Councilors listened as more than 70 people spoke during a nearly three-hour public hearing before deciding to postpone a vote on the issue until June 17.

One by one, Riverton residents told councilors that 654 Riverside St. is too far from services and amenities downtown. And West End residents were baffled that a 1-acre lot on Commercial Street near the Casco Bay Bridge, known as Angelo’s Acre, was being seriously considered.

Most speakers, including homeless advocates, didn’t like either site, pointing to logistical and safety issues at both sites – whether it’s the heavy traffic volumes or water access at either site.

“Both of these sites are unacceptable,” said Caroline Sylvius, a member of Homeless Voices for Justice, an advocacy program overseen by the nonprofit social service agency, Preble Street.

Many speakers urged for a delay and a new process to look for new models and new locations, even if it means the city purchasing a new property or seizing one by eminent domain.

“I’m asking you to make a decision not to make a decision, which in itself is a very valid decision,” said Danforth Street resident Sonia Robertson. “The answer isn’t here. It’s somewhere else.”

But Bayside residents urged the council to act. They noted that the city has been discussing ways to combat homelessness for years.

“You guys have done the work. What we need from you now is leadership,” said Stephanie Scherer. “Let’s get to work on building a better shelter.”

Portland councilors are looking at ways to replace the Oxford Street Shelter, which has been in Bayside for the last 30 years. City officials say the facility, a converted apartment building and auto garage that is leased, is unsafe and unsustainable for both staff and clients.

City officials are searching for a location for a new 150-bed facility that will have services the current shelter lacks. It would have beds, rather than mats placed on the floor. It also would have a soup kitchen, medical kitchen, interior courtyard and space for counseling.

Last year, City Manager Jon Jennings proposed building a 200-bed homeless services center at the Barron Center. Councilors dropped that plan amid neighborhood opposition. Since then, the council’s Health & Human Services and Public Safety Committee have been working with staff to find other locations.

City Councilor Belinda Ray said the council has been working on this project since 2016. She quickly walked through the rationale used  to winnow a list of 700 public and private properties down to the two now before the council.

While no one expressed support for Angelo’s Acre, a couple of speakers supported the Riverside Street location, including Cullen Ryan, the executive director of the Community Housing of Maine, which provides housing to the homeless. He said that Riverside Street would give the city the most flexibility to build a single-story shelter.

Ryan said that Riverside would afford clients “dignity of not being on display right downtown.”

But Riverton residents emphasized safety issues with the Riverside Street location, such as a lack of sidewalks and lighting between the location and the nearest bus stop. They worried about people overdosing in the woods and not being found. And they worried about the safety of their children.

“One thing you keep underestimating is the river,” said John McGovern, who added that he knows people who have drowned in the Presumpscot River. “It’s fast and unpredictable.”

Most of the speakers opposed both locations and asked the council to start over.

Anne Pringle, president of the Western Promenade Association, urged the council to have a discussion about whether the city should continue to shelter anyone in need, including those throughout Maine and out of state, and whether a low-barrier approach that does not impose rules on clients is the best for the city.

Sam Rosenthal, who lives in Nason’s Corner, agreed. He thinks the city needs to tighten up its policy.

“It seems to me some new ideas are needed here,” Rosenthal said. “Otherwise, before long we will be debating where to build the next 150-bed shelter And the next and the next.”

Bayside residents, however, said the council has discussed and studied the issue enough. They urged the council to act, saying that no process will result in consensus. And that Bayside would continue to host numerous shelters and soup kitchens.

“The harsh reality is no neighborhood is going to welcome a shelter with open arms,” Portland Street resident John Bass said.


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