Portland to pitch Barron Center site for new shelter, services

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PORTLAND — A city-owned parcel on Brighton Avenue could be the future site of new beds and services for the city’s homeless.

“I went all over the place, I was all over looking at available parcels and having a difficult time finding a good location,” City Manager Jon Jennings said June 21 about the search for a new site for the shelter and services city staff recommended to councilors Tuesday.

The recommendation to build on land where the Barron Center and Loring House is now located was made to the City Council Health & Human Services and Public Safety Committee, led by Councilor Belinda Ray.

Public comment was not taken during the presentation; a hearing is expected on July 10, Jennings said.

In order to build on the site, Jennings said zoning would need to be adjusted as the land falls outside the rezoned areas where shelters would be allowed as conditional uses.

Jennings emphasized the two-story building will be more than a 200-bed shelter, as it will contain space for those staying there to get needed medical, mental health and substance use disorder services.

The new center would also provide meals, storage areas and washers and dryers.

“Some people thought we were trying to hide the homeless; it was never the plan. First, we wanted to get them a safe environment,” Jennings said.

The long-planned shift of the emergency shelter from Oxford Street in Bayside could have cost $10 million by Jennings’ estimate earlier this year. Because the center can be built on city land, he expects the center to be less expensive.

Still, the city does not have a firm cost estimate. Jennings said that is something he and city Finance Director Brendan O’Connell will look at through the summer before approaching the council Finance Committee in early fall.

Jennings hopes for a full council vote on the site in October.

The plans remain consistent to provide 200 emergency beds in a setting where portable walls can be used to set off areas for men and women or even those who work second or third shift and need to sleep in the daytime.

While including service providers on site, Jennings said the setting is also well served by public transportation and city-operated shuttles and is near businesses providing jobs.

The zoning revisions passed last year allowing shelters as a conditional use mandated they be no more than 1/2-mile from transit lines if day services were also provided.

The city shelter at 252 Oxford St. is now open throughout the day, but is outmoded and in an area where city officials and shelter director Rob Parritt have said guests can be preyed upon by others.

In 2013, a city task force recommended housing first in the strategies to help end homelessness, and also determined the cost of shelters spread throughout the city could be too expensive. 

In 2016, Jennings, Ray and former Councilors Ed Suslovic and David Brenerman visited the Boston area to see how shelters provided services.

As he observed the June 21 vigil for the city’s homeless outside City Hall, Jim Devine of Homeless Voices for Justice said he will be glad the city is making the effort to improve services and housing.

At the same time, he remained concerned those using the shelter might not have access to services, comparing the shift from Bayside to the state Departments of Labor and Health and Human Services moving to near the Portland Jetport several years ago.

Devine added spreading beds and services throughout the city had its benefits.

“In a smaller setting, people can feel more humanized,” he said.

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

As seen from above and presented June 26, Portland officials are hoping 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.