Homeless shelter for teens given green light to move and expand

PORTLAND, Maine — The planning board on Tuesday gave approval for the relocation of a shelter for homeless teenagers and runaways from a breaking-down apartment building at 65 Elm St. to a former office building a few blocks away at 38 Preble St.

The wide-ranging homeless advocacy group Preble Street — which runs a soup kitchen, shelters and long-term apartments, among other things — plans to renovate a 9,000-square-foot building at the corner of Preble Street and Cumberland Avenue to house organization offices and 24 emergency beds for homeless teens.

But members of Portland’s Downtown District argued the project will further move crime, substance abuse and panhandling closer to city businesses.

After hearing from stakeholders on both sides Tuesday night, the planning board in a pair of 6-0 votes gave the project conditional use and site plan approval.

The proposed move comes as Preble Street’s lease on its current overnight teen facility, the Lighthouse Teen Shelter at 65 Elm St., expires on Dec. 31. Preble Street Executive Director Mark Swann said a slated rent increase and the need for foundation repairs at the site have motivated the organization to find another shelter for teens.

Plus, Swann said, the new shelter will increase the capacity from 16 beds at the Elm Street site and eventually house programs for homeless teens and runaways during what is now an 8 a.m.-to-noon gap in services. Preble Street’s teen center — which includes a cafeteria, recreation and classroom spaces — is open from noon until 8 p.m., while the Lighthouse Shelter is open from 8 p.m. to 8 a.m.

The Lighthouse Shelter was run from 1989 until 2004 by The Salvation Army, with Preble Street taking over at that point. Swann said 63 percent of the teens who use the facility are receiving mental health or substance abuse counseling and there’s more need than the current shelter can accommodate.

“We’ve turned kids away 544 times over the last two years” because of a lack of capacity, said Swann.

Preble Street is in the process of raising $3.5 million for the new teen center, with $975,000 to purchase the structure, $850,000 to renovate it and the additional money to establish and fund programming and additional services for the teen residents. Swann said the group has raised $2.1 million already and can close on the purchase next month with the planning board’s approval.

Two floors in the building are slated to be used for shelter purposes — one each for males and females — while the third floor will include organization offices now in other facilities the group oversees.

Swann said he’s confident Preble Street can arrange with the group’s landlord a month-to-month deal to keep the current Lighthouse Shelter available to homeless teens and runaways until mid- to late summer of 2012, when the new shelter could be ready to inhabit.

The building now is largely unused office space. Swann said one person has an office in the 9,000-square-foot structure.

But Doug Foos, president of the Downtown District board of directors, told the planning board his organization is against the relocation of the teen facility even the 200 yards proposed, as it places the shelter deeper into the downtown business district.

He said the city is experiencing an increase in public drunkenness, panhandling and fighting in closer proximity to the “city’s cluster of human services” facilities. Foos said he and his organization understand the need to make shelter and services available to homeless teens and runaways but argued it should not be located closer to the downtown in a building seen as a gateway into the shopping district for motorists.

Maurice Selinger, president of the Preble Street board, responded by telling the board that 20 nearby businesses either wrote letters of support for the relocation or signed a petition backing the move.

Cmdr. Vern Malloch of the Portland Police Department told the planning board that while city police are seeing a twofold increase in calls to nearby Monument Square this year, the incidents likely can be tied more to the poor economy — which is forcing more people to the area shelters — than to the shelters themselves. He said police believe the closure of the 8 a.m.-to-noon service gap for teens will be helpful in keeping homeless teens and runaways out of trouble.

“We feel like the move of 200 yards by the shelter is not going to [negatively] change anything in the neighborhood,” Malloch said.