The city-run Oxford Street Shelter. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

The number of people seeking emergency shelter in Portland is once again approaching record levels.

Last Monday, 539 people were using city-run shelters. City officials say that’s the most since the summer of 2019, when hundreds of migrant families arrived unexpectedly from the southern border.

While migrant families continue to come, albeit in much smaller numbers than last summer, this spike is driven by single adults, who are being placed in hotels.

The increase comes as the public health and economic fallout from the coronavirus pandemic continues to affect many people and future government assistance is in question. Meanwhile, various efforts to create additional temporary and permanent shelter space remain in flux.

Kristen Dow, the city’s director of health and human services, said she is not sure what’s driving the increase, because that is not a question typically asked by staff.

“When people present needing emergency housing, we meet that need. We don’t ask them why they’re currently experiencing (homelessness),” Dow said.

The pandemic has drastically changed the landscape of Portland’s social services network. The city-run Oxford Street Shelter is offering only 75 beds, about half its normal capacity, to allow for social distancing. That facility, and the city-run family shelter on Chestnut Street, are both full, and the city has been placing others in hotels.

According to figures provided by the city, 35 families, totaling 110 people, were staying at the city’s family shelter, and an additional 32 families, totaling 103 people, were staying in hotels.

In addition to the 74 people staying at Oxford Street, another 252 adults are staying at hotels: 198 people are at four different hotels using General Assistance vouchers, and 54 people are at a hotel under contract with MaineHousing to provide overflow capacity for Oxford Street.

That’s a total of 326 single adults staying at city shelters, compared to a high of 178 adults during this time last year. That figure is also higher than the 297 single adults who received shelter in January 2019. But it’s unclear whether the number of single adults is a record for the city.

While the city has about 50 hotel rooms remaining in the overflow hotel, Dow said officials are working to ensure additional rooms and funding are available, in case the city runs out of space.

After suspending new admissions in March, the city began accepting new clients at Oxford Street on Oct. 1. The city has taken in 70 new people, of whom 32 gave a previous address outside of Portland, which highlights the regional service the city is providing for surrounding towns.

City Councilor Tae Chong, who serves on the council’s Health & Human Services and Public Safety Committee, said Tuesday during a committee meeting that while Portland has only about 5 percent of the state’s population, it accounts for more than half of the total General Assistance spending in the state. He said it’s difficult to find another city in the United States that provides such a regional service.

“There is no city or town that addresses almost half of the state’s homeless population. You just can’t find it,” Chong said. “There’s nothing comparable, especially something small and it’s surrounded by other towns that are as capable as we are but we’re the only ones that do it. That’s difficult.”

The city is continuing its efforts to find permanent housing for people in its shelters. Between July 1 and Nov. 9, Dow said, 28 clients from Oxford Street were placed in housing and 38 families in the family shelter had found housing.

That’s down significantly from the same period last year, when the city placed 76 single adults and 61 families in housing during roughly the same period.

The city’s Rapid Rehousing Program recently received more funding from MaineHousing to help 40 individuals and 25 families find housing through a partnership with Amistad, a nonprofit that serves people with mental illness.

The city has been relying increasingly on hotel rooms for emergency shelter since it closed a temporary shelter at the Portland Expo the week before the election.

City officials had hoped to transition that population into the vacant Community Corrections Center on County Way, which officials have informally named Joyce House. But an insurance issue has become a stumbling block to signing an agreement to allow the city to use the county-run facility, though Dow said negotiations are ongoing.

Meanwhile, two efforts to create new, permanent shelters remain in flux. The city is still designing a new 150-to-200-bed shelter for Riverside Street, while the nonprofit social service agency Preble Street has filed an application to convert its former day room at 5 Portland St., which was closed during the pandemic, into a 40-bed shelter.

PREBLE STREET PLAN

The Planning Board has held one workshop on Preble Street’s proposal and requested additional information from the nonprofit and the city. Those requests included a more detailed management plan for handling neighborhood concerns and the maximum number of beds that could be in the shelter once social distancing is no longer needed, said board chairman Brandon Mazer. Another workshop is tentatively scheduled for Dec. 8.

Preble Street’s executive director, Mark Swann, said Preble Street’s shelter is only part of the solution and could complement the new shelter that the city plans to build on Riverside Street.

Swann said Preble Street’s shelter would focus on those who are unsheltered — estimated to be 50 people or more — because they are prohibited from accessing the city shelter or don’t feel comfortable there, as well as people struggling with mental illness or substance use.

“The city is working really hard to provide shelter for large numbers of people right now, which is great. But that doesn’t mean that all the needs in this community are being met,” Swann said. “As hardworking as everyone is, there is no question that the shelter system is incredibly strained. And that strain will only get worse as the economy worsens and evictions increase.”

The council’s Health & Human Services and Public Safety Committee is working on new licensing and buffering requirements for shelters. Those rules could affect Preble Street’s proposed shelter.

On Tuesday, the committee discussed using annual licensing as a way to ensure that shelters are dealing with neighborhood concerns. Procedures for addressing neighborhood issues are supposed to be outlined in an agency’s management plan, but Bayside residents have expressed deep skepticism that Preble Street would follow through with its plans based on past performance.

Sarah Michniewicz, president of the Bayside Neighborhood Association, said setting up a licensing regime is more urgent in light of Preble Street’s application.

“If Preble Street had in the past acknowledged the community impacts and tried to find ways to mitigate them, licensing might not seem so urgent, but they just haven’t,” Michniewicz said. “In light of their outsized impact over the years, and a wildly fluctuating number of clients, it would be inappropriate for the city to simply trust they, or any other provider, will be able to make decisions that take the needs of the entire community into account.”

Swann said he doesn’t believe any new regulations would hold up Preble Street’s project, which could be completed in six to eight weeks if approved.

“It’s our understanding that our application cannot be held up because of potential future regulatory or legislative efforts,” Swann said. “And given the urgency of the need, we certainly hope that wouldn’t be the case.”

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