The temporary shelter set up at the University of Southern Maine’s Sullivan gymnasium in Portland will close by Tuesday so that the school can reclaim the building and prepare for its fall opening.

The shelter, which has a capacity of 50 beds, has been operated by the Preble Street social services agency since April 3.

It opened to ease crowding at the city’s Oxford Street Shelter, which was unable to follow physical distancing requirements designed to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus because people slept on floor mats less than 2 feet apart. The city also opened the Portland Expo as a temporary shelter and continues to use it to house those in need and prevent crowding in any single facility.

In a memorandum to the Portland City Council, Social Services Division Director Aaron Geyer said the transition out of the USM gym began Wednesday using 15-passenger vans to accommodate physical distancing requirements.

According to Geyer’s plan outlined in the memorandum, 26 individuals will be transferred to the Expo, 16 will go to the Oxford Street Shelter, seven will go to Milestone Recovery and one will go to Florence House.

City spokeswoman Jessica Grondin confirmed that the Oxford Street Shelter would continue to maintain adequate social distancing by splitting clients between there and the Expo.


The closure will mark the beginning of a new planning effort for providing emergency shelter during the coronavirus pandemic, which is expected to linger into the fall and until there is a vaccine.

MaineHousing is currently working with homeless advocates on ways to create additional emergency shelters throughout the state, so the responsibility doesn’t fall on service centers like Portland, Lewiston and Bangor. There is no timeline for completing this work, however.

A temporary 50-bed wellness shelter in USM’s Sullivan Gymnasium provides more space for homeless people during the coronavirus pandemic. Courtesy / Preble Street

Preble Street Executive Director Mark Swann said the Portland-based nonprofit agency is planning on filing an application with the city to convert its daytime drop-in center, known as the Resource Center, into a 40-bed emergency shelter for men and women that would be open 24 hours a day.

Prior to closing because of the pandemic, the Resource Center served between 300 and 400 people a day, allowing them to connect with caseworkers, take showers, do laundry, use the phone, receive mail and get personal hygiene products. Swann said the agency plans to work with other nonprofits to increase outreach efforts to people who would have accessed services at the Resource Center but are not staying in any shelter.

Swann said the agency hopes to have the conversion approved and finished by the end of September, when the city plans to close the shelter at the Expo. But the effort is facing opposition from the Bayside Neighborhood Association and City Councilor Belinda Ray, who represents the district.

Staff Writer Randy Billings contributed to this report.

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