Nason’s Corner residents unwavering in opposition to Portland homeless shelter

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PORTLAND — That Bayside should no longer be home to the city’s homeless shelter is not in dispute.

But the city’s proposal for a new shelter on outer Brighton Avenue continues to generate staunch opposition.

On Saturday, Sept. 8, city officials will host an 11 a.m. community forum at the University of Southern Maine’s Hannaford Hall, 88 Bedford St., on the proposal to create a homeless services center on Brighton Avenue, next to the Barron Center.

“We want to front-load a bunch of information and then talk to residents in a smaller setting,” Assistant City Manager Michael Sauschuck said last month.

The forum will be the third public meeting on the shelter plan. Meetings in July showed the proposal is a tough sell; residents in and around the Nason’s Corner neighborhood said a 200-bed shelter offering meals, health care and mental health services would be too big and leaves too many unanswered questions.

On Aug. 30, Steve Sclar and Casey McCormack, who live within 1 1/2 miles of the proposed shelter and service center, said they will continue to oppose the city’s plans.

“There is no amount of due diligence they could carry out to substantiate the idea,” Sclar said.

Sclar’s talking points can also be found online at portlandshelters.org. The site suggests an alternative approach for the city to set up smaller shelters, a concept city officials have not pursued because of the expected cost.

The city has estimated a single shelter with 200 beds would cost $2.9 million to operate annually, while smaller shelters could cost a combined $4.5 million.

Last winter, City Manager Jon Jennings said building a new shelter could cost as much as $10 million, although the amount included the cost of buying land for the site. The proposed Nason’s Corner site is on city-owned land, although a zoning map would have to be amended by the City Council to include a shelter as a conditional use.

Former City Councilor Ed Suslovic, once chairman of what was then the Health & Human Services Committee, said throughout the task force process and site visits during his tenure that there had never been an expectation the city would have only one adult shelter.

“Everything seemed to point to smaller shelters designed for specific populations,” Suslovic said last month.

He would like to see three shelters in the city.

“One would be for folks unready or able to commit to treatment or receive mental health services; they cannot be housed in a residential neighborhood without significant negative impacts,” Suslovic said.

Mayor Ethan Strimling also supports at least three shelters.

“Smaller shelters in more community will have a better reception, and it spreads out the work so we are all participating,” Strimling said last month.

Sclar and McCormack said they could support a smaller shelter on the Barron Center site that perhaps could serve the aging homeless population.

The Oxford Street Shelter opened almost 30 years ago when the city began to take on the task of helping its homeless population after other shelters closed.

But more closures brought more demand; the shelter now has 154 beds and a 75-bed overflow area at the Preble Street Resource Center.

The shelter doesn’t provide meal service, and until last winter it closed during daytime hours. Shelter users could go to Preble Street for meals, but they had to leave the shelter each day and take their belongings with them.

City officials, including shelter director Rob Parritt, have said a central shelter where access is better controlled will benefit users and protect them from people who prey on them.

After meetings in July, city officials cited a central shelter in Missoula, Montana, as an example of what it wants to create to serve the homeless population. Opponents noted there was community backlash in Missoula based on neighborhood safety concerns and overcrowding at the shelter.

In 2012, a Portland task force concluded there was a need for centralized intake for people seeking shelter, and housing-first programs should be a high priority. There are three housing-first facilities operated by Avesta Housing and Preble Street; the most recent, Huston Commons, opened in April 2017.

About two years ago, Suslovic, Councilor Belinda Ray (now chairwoman of the HHS Committee) and other city officials spent a day touring shelter facilities in the Boston area, including a shelter in Cambridge near Harvard University.

“Yes, you can run a homeless shelter with minimal impact on the surrounding neighborhoods and abutters, but neither of those were emergency, no-barrier shelters,” Suslovic said.

With the streets behind and near the Barron Center primarily residential and home to Sagamore Village and the new Amanda Rowe Elementary School, Sclar and McCormack said a no-barrier shelter is not suited for the neighborhood.

McCormack has offered an alternative plan to build the large shelter on 53 acres of land off outer Congress Street now owned by the Portland International Jetport.

Determining where users come from is not easy. The city estimates as many as two-thirds are not from Portland. And as demand has increased, the basic equation has remained constant.

“Intake is simply asking someone ‘where did you stay last night?'” Sauschuck said. “It is not asking where did they stay for the last six months.”

The closest other shelters are in Alfred and Brunswick.

Craig Phillips, who directs adult and family shelters in Brunswick operated by Tedford Housing, has also encountered difficulty expanding the adult shelter that now houses 16 guests. In April, Brunswick councilors extended a moratorium on building new shelters.

Phillips said he favors the model of one larger shelter over scattered sites.

“Beds and services is the proper way to go,” he said. “It is harder to build several facilities and staff and monitor them. It is about a much better level of care and service.”

Sclar said he hopes the city recognizes opposition to its shelter plan isn’t going to fade.

“It is dead weight, time to move on,” he said. “Let’s have a deeper conversation on homelessness in the city.”

David Harry can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 110 or dharry@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidHarry8.

Casey McCormack, left, Steve Sclar and Ed Cundy are among Nason’s Corner neighborhood residents who oppose construction of a 200-bed emergency homeless shelter on Brighton Avenue in Portland.

Portland officials hope land at the Barron Center on Brighton Avenue will become a new homeless shelter and service center.

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Portland City Hall reporter for The Forecaster. Baltimore native, lived in Maine since 1989. A journalist since 2005, covering much of Cumberland and York counties. I joined The Forecaster in 2012.