On Election Day, November 2, Portland voters will have the opportunity to vote for Option A on Question A to intervene in the City’s underhanded deal with developers to warehouse homeless people on the outskirts of town using a financing scheme intended to bypass the bond approval process.
The proposed Riverton “megashelter” is a multi-million dollar, 300-bed homeless services facility. Its huge size and remote location run counter to best practices research showing that smaller community shelters, with more privacy, in close proximity to other services, produce better outcomes. Intended to replace the aging and insufficient Oxford Street Shelter in the Bayside neighborhood downtown, the megashelter is slated to be built on publicly-owned land, and leased back to the City at a cost to Portland taxpayers of $1.47 million per year for ten years, with the City covering all operating expenses. After 25 years, the City could then purchase the lease. This tricky financing scheme was devised by former City Manager Jon Jennings as a work-around to the more difficult political task of getting a bond over the twin hurdles of a two-thirds majority vote of the City Council and the approval of Portland voters.
Last year, the group Smaller Shelters for Portland collected enough signatures to place Option A on the ballot due to concerns that the size and location of the shelter did not meet the needs of the homeless, and because the people of Portland had been sidelined in the decision-making process through Jennings’ lease-back loophole. The group is not a “NIMBY” (Not in My Back Yard) effort, as some claim, but a grassroots organization of residents from all over the city, and from diverse political stripes, joined by housing justice activists, past and present civic leaders, as well as many homeless and formerly homeless people. They have only one person from Riverton on their ten-member steering committee, and have publicly voiced support for a smaller-scale shelter in the Riverton neighborhood. Smaller Shelters has raised about $5,000 to support their effort.
Option A orients Portland’s zoning to support smaller-scale shelters that are less like a warehouse and more like a college dormitory or youth hostel. It creates a size limit of 50 beds for emergency shelters, with exceptions for family shelters and domestic violence shelters. It adds a requirement that shelters be open 24 hours, and removes requirements unsuitable for all types of shelters, such as a dehumanizing security search spaces, privacy-limiting sightlines from operators to beds, and a requirement for METRO access which is an unhelpful barrier to siting some smaller shelters. Under Option A, the Riverton shelter could be scaled back in size and built in the same, or more suitable, location. Remarkably, Option A is endorsed by the Portland Democratic Party City Committee, the Portland Greens, and the Portland Republican City Committee.
The Smaller Shelters referendum would have been a simple yes-or-no vote had Bayside Councilor Belinda Ray (D1) and Riverton Councilor Mark Dion (D5) not put a competing measure forward. Their Option B implements licensing requirements that would create significant barriers to smaller shelter operations, and is opposed by most of Portland’s shelter operators, both small and large-scale. Because City ordinance requires that a ballot measure split three ways pass with a majority of votes (greater than 50%), Option B is essentially a spoiler: it increases the likelihood that none of the three options will receive a majority, which would allow the Riverton megashelter to proceed as planned. This appears to be the first time the Council has ever triggered the majority rule by placing a competing measure on the ballot.
Developers Collaborative is the private corporation that won the contract to build the Riverton megashelter, and it stands to make millions in profit from the deal. It is the sole entity backing the Option C campaign, and the real face of the Astroturf group “Portland Cares,” which ran a $17,000 full-page ad in the Press Herald last Sunday, and which is currently sending robo-texts amplifying the false NIMBY narrative. Option C would leave the current requirements in place and allow the lease-back deal for the megashelter to go forward, netting millions for the developers, not to mention tens of millions more for the allies of these developers through redevelopment of the Bayside neighborhood on and around the existing Oxford Street shelter location. Their committee has raised $40k through the contributions of just two developers.
Some proponents of the Riverton megashelter have falsely argued that it is the only plan available to replace the aging and inadequate emergency shelter on Oxford Street. In fact, a 40-bed Wellness Shelter is scheduled to open this winter in Bayside, and Preble Street is currently in the final push to raise the needed funds to move forward with a new 30-bed women’s shelters in the Greater Portland area. In addition, Oxford Street Shelter (or another suitable property) can be renovated to accommodate 40-50 beds.
The City’s hotel and motel voucher system can also be restored. Vouchers, which offer a safer and more dignified emergency shelter option for people compared to a large-scale congregate emergency shelter, while also allowing people to stay with their spouse/partner and with their companion animals, were routinely used in Portland until City staff restricted their use under City Manager Jennings.
The Maine Homeless System Redesign Report was completed in June, 2021 and implementation is underway with the help of Community Solutions/Built for Zero. This program realigns our focus on Housing First initiatives, such as diversion, prevention, supportive housing, rapid-rehousing and transitional housing, all of which provide permanent housing to people experiencing homelessness, not temporary shelter. When coupled with wrap-around services, Housing First programs serve as a foundation from which people at-risk of homelessness can get back on their feet. The state predicts this approach will prevent 40% of people from needing emergency shelter.
These interventions already underway would replace the 150-bed Oxford Street Shelter, with 50 beds of overflow and no loss of service while these alternatives come on line. While, in addition, hundreds of subsidized affordable units are already under development in Portland alone, which will reduce the strain on the housing market: Middle St., Douglass St., Randall St., Hanover St., Winter St., State St., Lambert St., Auburn St. are already in the pipeline. Significant additional affordable housing developments have been proposed in South Portland, Westbrook, and Brunswick. And the new Portland rent control and inclusionary zoning requirements passed by voters in 2020 will also soon begin to have positive effects on reducing homelessness in Portland.
Proponents of the megashelter, optimistically slated to be finished in 2022, have also falsely claimed that scrapping the deal will cause a “years-long” delay that hurts the homeless. In fact, the opposite is true: smaller shelters, which can be more easily retrofitted into existing structures, can be built faster and offer a more immediate solution. For instance, the new 40-bed Preble Street shelter was proposed in the summer of 2020 and will open this winter. There are numerous buildings in the Greater Portland area that are for lease or sale, where emergency shelters and/or Housing First could be located today.
We all know the world has changed significantly since the Portland City Council approved the Riverton megashelter by a very close 5-4 vote in 2019, a vote that would not have passed the test of a bond issue, and one that would likely go very differently today, with four of the five councilors who voted yes no longer on the Council.
We will still need appropriate emergency shelters, but the pandemic has shown us that smaller shelters produce better health outcomes for the people they serve. Service providers such as Preble Street found that working at smaller scales necessitated by the pandemic led to improved experiences for clients and was especially helpful for getting people who were long-term homeless into housing.
The megashelter’s location on Riverside Street is far away from many important resources and employment options, in an area lacking ADA compliant sidewalks and adequate snow clearing, posing hazards for residents and impeding their mobility. So why was this area selected to clear unhoused people out of Bayside and Downtown to serve business interests there? Simple: because this neighborhood is devoid of the monied interests that the City Council serves.
Option C does not “help the homeless” as the signs and robo-texts say, but it will help to line the pockets of already-wealthy developers. Option A, on the other hand, puts us on the path to focusing our efforts on increasing access to Housing First and affordable housing over less effective strategies, including emergency shelters.