The Portland City Council voted to delay a decision on the capacity and operating policies of a new homeless shelter until after a new councilor and new mayor are sworn in next month.

Mayor-elect Kate Snyder

Mayor-elect Kate Snyder said she will be meeting with councilors, including Belinda Ray, who leads the Health & Human Services and Public Safety committee, before the question of shelter policies is brought back to the council for action Dec. 16. Snyder and District 3 Councilor-elect Tae Chong will take office Dec. 2.

 “I’m mostly interested in getting as much context as I can from the head of the HHS committee and talking to councilors. We will get ourselves ready,” Snyder said Tuesday.

The decision was made after a nearly 90-minute public hearing on Monday. Advocates and residents who have experienced homelessness urged the city not to set a limit on the number of people who will be allowed to stay at the new shelter, and some also raised concerns about the rising number of people who have been barred from the existing homeless shelter for being disruptive or violating rules.

On the other hand, some Riverton residents who live near the site of the planned shelter urged the council to set a cap on the number of people who will be sheltered there and renewed calls for the city to build multiple smaller shelters instead of one large facility.

Stephanie Neuts said she and other Riverton residents would like to partner with city officials on planning for a new shelter, but feel shut out of the process. “Riverton has stopped trying because no one is listening to them,” Neuts said. “I think there needs to be set rules. There needs to be a bed cap. There needs to be an overflow cap.”

The vote to delay was partly prompted by the absence of City Councilor Kimberly Cook, who has advocated for a cap. Cook fell over the weekend and sustained a suspected concussion, Mayor Ethan Strimling said.

City Councilor Nicholas Mavodones said he wanted to discuss the issues during a workshop before deciding on the shelter capacity and other policy guidance for operating the new emergency shelter.

The number of beds that would be provided at the new shelter has been a moving target. City Manager Jon Jennings originally proposed a 200-bed shelter. But that figure was lowered to about 150 beds, based on emerging partnerships with area nonprofits that are seeking to build satellite shelters for seniors, women or mentally ill adults.

The resolution forwarded unanimously by the three-member HHS committee says the new shelter should have “ample capacity” for the average nightly census at the Oxford Street Shelter during the previous 12 months, which was 210 as of Sept. 30. Although it sets no hard cap on access, the resolution holds out the possibility for a cap in the future, should demand drop.

The resolution calls on the city to continue its efforts to find permanent housing, especially for long-term shelter stayers, and stresses the need for a regional strategy to combat homelessness. It also calls on the city to ramp up its diversion program to keep at-risk people from becoming homeless. A similar program is used by the Pine Street Inn in Boston, which city officials toured on Friday.

During the public hearing Monday, advocates and people who have experienced homelessness urged the council to follow the committee’s recommendation about not setting a cap at the new shelter. Several urged the council to build a shelter large enough to handle the highest census over the last year, which was 271 people on a night in January.

Some speakers also raised concerns about the rise in the number of criminal trespass orders that have been issued to Oxford Street Shelter guests this year for breaking shelter rules. Such orders can limit access to the shelter for up to a year, although city staff continue to work with those people to find housing, a spokeswoman said.

No-trespassing orders increased by 50 percent since last year, from 84 in 2018 to 126 through early October, according to data presented to the committee. A breakdown of trespass orders showed that 43 were issued after an assault on a guest, 19 after an assault on a staff member, 16 issued after a threat to staff and 10 because of hate speech.

Jennings, the city manager, said on Oct. 22 that the uptick reflects efforts to protect staff from increasingly violent behavior fueled by an increase in methamphetamine use. “It certainly is a much more threatening behavior,” Jennings said.

Caitlin Corrigan, the health services director for the nonprofit social services agency Preble Street, urged the council to adopt “clear and consistent policies” on restrictions and an appeals process at both Oxford Street Shelter and the new facility.

“There will be people sleeping outside tonight in the rain who are struggling with untreated mental and physical health conditions, who have no understanding of their path to access safe, warm shelter,” Corrigan said. “My colleagues and I are routinely heartbroken to see the cost these individuals must pay for their mistakes: isolation, frostbite and increased substance abuse to numb the physical and emotional pain of having nowhere to go.”

Under existing rules, shelter guests have to sign a two-page sheet that outlines the rules and indicates that a violation would result in being restricted from accessing service, an outcome that officials say is used as a last resort to protect the safety of staff and other shelter guests. While shelter intake forms say someone can challenge a restriction order, they do not outline a process for doing so.

The proposed resolution calls for a more explicit policy on criminal trespass orders and other restrictions so “clients can easily see how specific behaviors will impact their ability to stay at the facility.”

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