Portland shelters in 'crisis' mode amid new federal guidelines

Portland’s social service providers are scrambling to meet new federal guidelines due to be take effect Monday, saying an already serious situation with homeless shelters in the city is about to get worse.

Beginning Nov. 1, changes to federal reimbursement claims for certain facilities that provide refuge for the city’s homeless will force two local shelters to turn away dozens of people. The new rules will impact the Milestone Foundation and Serenity House, officials said.

The federal mandate — which forces the two shelters to remove a combined 60 beds — means adding additional people to other shelters already "bursting at the seams," says John Shoos, a chairman of the Portland’s Emergency Shelter Assessment Committee.

"That’s just an incredible, incredible bump," he said, referring to the additional space that will be needed.

The directive comes from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, CMS,  and passed through by the state’s Department of Health and Human Services. The change means CMS will no longer reimburse the roughly $2 of every $3 dollars for certain services that it has in the past.

"If those (beds are not) available then it puts pressure on other shelters where they’re already full," Shoos said.

The Emergency Shelter Assessment Committee helps tracks shelter occupancy in the city.

Shoos says an average of 350 people a night were sleeping at a Portland shelter in June. The already high number has increased to about 384 people per night in September.

"We’ve been in overflow now for quite some time," he said, referring to term used for housing additional people when the regular sleeping areas hit max capacity.

"We are using the facilities that should only really be used temporarily," Shoos said. "In the last six months it’s just been incredibly difficult."

Nearly 34 percent of people entering Portland shelters are homeless for the first time, according to committee reports.

A conglomerate of social service providers have been scrambling for a solution and say a temporary Band-Aid fix would likely involve moving the homeless to the Preble Street shelter.

"This is a crisis on top of a situation where we’ve been seeing increasing numbers of individuals experiencing homelessness," said Doug Gardner, director of Portland’s Health and Human Services Department.

"It’s on top of the situation where we’re already into overflow and we’re already over capacity for emergency sheltering," he said. "The best that we can come up with so far is to use Preble Street’s day shelter."

The plan means opening the Oxford Street shelter during the day and then ushering people to Preble Street’s day shelter later on in the day, said Jon Bradley, associate director at Preble Street.

"This is an emergency plan," he said. "We’ve been using overflow pretty much every night for most of this year, … (but) it’s the only option that we’ve come up with, so far."

Bradley explained that, if necessary, Preble Street may use its dining hall as a sleeping area if overflow goes beyond maximum capacity.

"It’s going to be challenging," he said. "We’ve been working on this and we will continue. We see this Band-Aid as very short term."

As of Thursday afternoon, discussions were still ongoing in an effort to find more permanent solution. Officials said they expected future collaborative efforts between the city and Portland’s various social service groups.