Portland remains committed to 150-bed homeless shelter

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PORTLAND — City officials know a 150-bed homeless shelter will not be built on the grounds of the Barron Center.

But where it goes and how long it may take to develop partnerships for more specialized care for the city’s homeless remains unsettled.

“This is a very good path we are on to reduce overall need at a shelter,” City Manager Jon Jennings said Nov. 30, several days after the City Council Health & Human Services and Public Safety Committee recommended a 150-bed service center model to replace the Oxford Street Shelter.

The committee also recommended city staff move ahead with a variety of potential partnerships with area nonprofits to provide beds for women, people 55 and over, and those needing care for mental health and substance use disorder.

Before the Nov. 27 committee meeting, Jennings noted Avesta Housing and the Opportunity Alliance had presented conceptual plans for beds and care. Since then, the Preble Street Resource Center has proposed an 80-bed shelter for women, although the city would have to provide the land.

First, the city will move ahead on the service center.

Jennings said staff will continue researching potential sites and present a refined list to the HHS committee early next year.

“The committee guidance was clear they do not want us to hold up developing a new service center based on what others do,” he said.

The proposal to use open land at the Barron Center on Brighton Avenue met stiff community opposition for its size, scale and proximity to nearby residential areas. Any shelter built there would require councilors to approve a change to the zoning map.

Councilors in 2017 amended zoning in business and industrial areas to allow shelters as a conditional use, and Jennings said last month the city looked at 30 potential sites for the larger shelter and service center.

Moving ahead on plans to replace the Oxford Street Shelter, which is used by adults without families, is also necessary because potential partnerships will take time, money and possible zoning changes of their own.

While Preble Street and Avesta President and CEO Dana Totman hope the expansion of MaineCare and availability of $15 million in state bonds will add to the financing picture, Totman on Monday was clear about any partnership time frame.

“You are 2 1/2 years out, on an optimistic schedule,” he said.

Avesta has three housing-first operations in the city, seen as a very effective way of reducing demand on shelters while also providing stability and services for people in need.

The most recent to open, in 2017, was Huston Commons on Bishop Street near Morrill’s Corner. Getting the 30 units Huston Commons from concept to reality took a zoning change, and a mix of private and public funding that included $455,000 in IRS Low Income Housing Tax Credits passed on through the Maine State Housing Authority.

Avesta’s Thomas Heights on Washington Avenue, providing affordable housing for veterans, opened in 2016 and sits in a tax increment finance zone established to offset operating costs.

“We have had as many as eight or nine funding sources, with the residential care piece, there would be more than 10 different funding sources, as well as operational funding,” Totman said of providing housing for homeless people 55 and older.

Yet the partnership possibility is not daunting.

“As we talk, I am looking out the window at the path between Oxford Street and Preble Street,” Totman said. “To see the current suffering going on at the inadequate shelter is pretty motivating.”

David Harry can be reached at 780-9092 or dharry@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidHarry8.

Portland City Manager Jon Jennings said the city no longer plans to build a 150-bed homeless service center at the Barron Center on Brighton Avenue.

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.