Zoning to allow emergency shelters set for Portland City Council vote

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PORTLAND — City councilors on Monday conducted the first reading of proposed zoning changes that would allow emergency shelters as a conditional use throughout the city.

More discussion on the evolving outlook on how and where the city’s homeless can find shelter will be part of a 5:30 p.m. City Council workshop Monday, May 22.

“The conditions are critical and I think the city understands the current structure does not meet the needs of our guests,” Oxford Street Shelter Director Rob Parritt said Monday about the proposed changes.

Zoning amendments would allow emergency shelters as conditional uses in current business and industrial zones extending to the northern and western edges of the city, but would require any approved shelter to be no more than 1/2 mile from a bus line.

If the new shelter does not provide any day services, as is now the case at Oxford Street, it would have to be within 1/4-mile of a bus line.

A June 5 public hearing and council vote is expected for the zoning changes, which were recommended for passage by a 6-1 Planning Board vote. Planning Board member Carol Morrisette opposed placing shelters in any industrial zones.

The proposed changes stem from studies by city staff and councilors that included a September 2016 trip to Cambridge and Quincy, Massachusetts, to see how services are provided by Boston-area nonprofits.

Councilors David Brenerman and Belinda Ray and former Councilor Ed Suslovic made the trip, as did Parritt.

The trip reinforced Parritt’s opinion that shelters do not need to be in urban centers to be effective, so long as there is access to transportation and services. The city also commissioned a conceptual sketch of how a shelter offering a wider realm of services may look.

The new capital improvements program budget also includes $125,000 to for homeless shelter planning.

“I think the city is doing its due diligence to keep its options open,” Parritt said. “There is nothing set in stone, we are just at the zoning process.”

In preparing the suggested changes, city staff also compared how services are delivered in cities and counties up and down the East Coast and in San Diego.

Parritt said Oxford Street, which will get $3 million in funding in the new city budget, now serves about 220 people per night. Shelters are also open for families and teens, all within Bayside.

A newer building designed so staff would not have to give up office space when caregivers visit would benefit services, and Parritt said relocating could also enhance security and quality of life for shelter clients.

As people head for Oxford Street for the night, Parritt said maybe half of those outside the shelter are not clients and may be selling drugs or engaged in human trafficking.

A new location with better sight lines and more control over access could help reduce some of those risks, he said.

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

Councilors will consider zoning changes to allow emergency shelters as conditional uses throughout the city. If approved, shelters would also have to be within certain distances from bus lines, marked in blue on the map.

Oxford Street Shelter Director Rob Parritt said the building is outmoded and inadequate to provide proper services Monday as he welcomed the idea of zoning changes to allow new shelters in Portland.

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.