Portland has dropped plans to use a vacant building near the Cumberland County Jail as a temporary emergency shelter this winter after negotiations with county officials fell through because of an insurance issue.

A bedroom at the Cumberland County Corrections Facility. City of Portland

The city announced on Oct. 19 that it was planning to use the Cumberland County Corrections Center as a temporary shelter through April. Officials touted the dormitory-like arrangement of the facility, rebranded as the Joyce House, as a benefit for people experiencing homelessness, who would have been allowed to come and go as they pleased.

The move was panned by activists, who accused the city of putting homeless people in jail because the building is next to the jail and is typically used to transition inmates back into the community. Others accused the city of attempting to undermine a proposal for a permanent shelter by social service provider Preble Street by making the corrections center announcement before a deal was signed. The Preble Street proposal is opposed by neighborhood residents and at least one city councilor.

City Manager Jon Jennings updated councilors on negotiations with the county at Monday’s council meeting in response to questions from the public. He said city and county officials were unable to resolve an insurance issue raised by the county’s statewide risk pool.

The corrections center is a separate facility from the jail, and has been used to house low-risk inmates who are nearing the end of their sentences. It was emptied at the beginning of the pandemic. City officials said it would have accommodated about 50 people, mostly in private rooms, with day space, a kitchen and a fenced-in outdoor courtyard.

“It is unfortunate we were not able to work out an understanding with the county,” Jennings told councilors. “It was not the county manager or the commissioners – it was the statewide county risk board that put many, many impediments in the way that would have added tremendous risk to the city and exposure, and we just felt like we could not put the city at that type of exposure.”

Jennings did not provide details Monday about the type of exposure or risk the city was asked to take. Neither Jennings nor Kristen Dow, who leads the city’s Health and Human Services Department, responded to requests for additional information Tuesday. A city spokesperson said the city was asked to assume liability for things not covered by its insurance and to waive its immunity under the Maine Tort Claims Act.

Malcolm Ulmer, risk manager for the Maine County Commissioners Association’s Self-Funded Risk Pool, did not directly address the same question in an email Tuesday.

County Manager Jim Gailey said he was not available for an interview Tuesday afternoon because of previously scheduled meetings. But Gailey sided with city officials in the insurance dispute and reiterated his desire to help in a written statement released by the city Tuesday afternoon.

“The County is disappointed that an agreement was not reached,” Gailey wrote. “We wanted to help the city support their housing efforts through the Joyce House, and we agree with the city that the liability threshold is excessive. But those decisions are out of our control.”

Gailey said in a follow-up email that, “unfortunately, we were unable to convince the County’s insurance carrier of the regional importance, which placed greater liability on the city.”

Gailey said the county has committed $200,000 in federal coronavirus funding to help pay for housing expenses, but since Portland receives its own Community Development Block Grant funding, county dollars can only be used for non-Portland residents.

A city spokesperson said Tuesday that the city provided shelter to roughly 550 people Monday. That includes 178 single adults staying at area hotels being funded through General Assistance, for which the city covers 30 percent of the costs and the state pays the rest. And 143 people were staying at the Oxford Street Shelter, which is capped at 75 people, and a hotel under contract and paid for by MaineHousing.

An additional 103 people, or 32 families, stayed at the city’s Family Shelter Monday night and an additional 125 people, or 40 families, were in hotel rooms, according to the city.

The city is working with the state to secure additional hotel rooms, including a hotel near the jetport, to ensure anyone seeking shelter can have a safe place to stay during the cold months ahead, Jennings said. City workers are on site at each hotel, he said.

The update came in response to questions and concerns raised by two residents during Monday’s meeting. And it comes a day before Preble Street’s proposal to convert its former Resource Center – a day space and service center for people experiencing homelessness – is scheduled for its second Planning Board workshop.

West Bayside resident and frequent council critic George Rheault accused the city of deliberately trying to undermine Preble Street’s proposal by announcing the use of the county facility before an agreement was signed.

“That was done basically to try and convince the Planning Board that Preble Street’s 40-bed shelter was an unnecessary and unneeded addition to the city’s ‘robust’ plan,” Rheault said. “And that was false. We have no deal for the county facilities that was announced with great fanfare. Even some of the Porta Potties that were put out have been removed, citing a need for plowing and winter operations and etc.”

City officials pushed back against the criticism, saying they’re doing everything they can to ensure overnight shelter is available to anyone who needs it.

Jennings said city staff were working on Thanksgiving Day providing services to the city’s homeless population.

“It’s really important for the public to understand when individuals who really don’t know what they’re talking about make these allegations that it’s political or whatever – it’s not even close to being true,” Jennings said. “We have an incredible city staff … There is no one – I mean no one – doing more for the homeless population than the city of Portland. It’s not even close.”

City Councilor Belinda Ray, who has criticized Preble Street’s shelter plan, said the city’s permanent shelter capacity may be reduced because of the need to create more distance between beds to help prevent the spread of the coronavirus, but no one who seeks shelter is being left out in the cold.

“Even though permanent capacity is down now because of COVID, actual capacity (and the) actual number of people being served is up and people are not being turned away,” she said. “Anyone who is seeking shelter is being provided shelter either by the city or by one of the nonprofits’ shelters in the city.”

Councilor Tae Chong, who will oversee the council’s Health and Human Services Committee in 2021, defended the city’s efforts to help the people experiencing homelessness.

Chong said that Portland only accounts for 5 percent of the state population, but spends roughly half the state’s General Assistance budget, a voucher-based safety net program for rent, food, medicine and the like. He said the city’s GA office is open seven days a week and has approved 93 or 94 percent of its GA applications.

The city needs help, especially since only one-third of the people in the city’s homeless shelter are from Portland, Chong said.

“We are literally doing more for the homeless population by far – leaps and bounds – than any other city in southern Maine and even in the state of Maine,” Chong said. “When only 5 percent of the state’s population is addressing a Maine issue we have to push back.”

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