PORTLAND – On the wall behind city Health and Human Services Director Doug Gardner’s desk is a classroom-sized whiteboard. On Monday, there were 10 high-priority projects, issues, and initiatives written on it.
Five of them – emergency shelter overflow, a veteran’s affairs case worker at the Oxford Street shelter, the Homeless Task Force, a meeting with the Milestone shelter for intoxicated persons, and a General Assistance working group that has been discussing homelessness and housing alongside state-mandated changes to assistance eligibility guidelines – share a common thread.
"If you look at my board, I guess it is pretty telling," Gardner said. The message is clear – Portland is experiencing an epidemic of homelessness.
The city now averages about 350 homeless residents at any given time. "These are the highest (numbers) that we’ve ever seen, at least for the last five to seven years," Gardner said.
Social service workers expect the problem to get worse before it gets better. The city established the Homeless Task Force last November to assess long term-solutions and new approaches to resolving homelessness.
But the task force likely won’t make its recommendations until the fall, and the city has an emergency on its hands: it scarcely has the space for all the people looking for a place to sleep each night.
"Overflow is an urgent need that we want to align with the task force, but we really can’t be waiting until October," Gardner said.
From 2000 to 2005, the city’s homeless population routinely exceeded the capacity available at its general shelter at 203 Oxford St., said Mark Swann, executive director of Preble Street, one of the city’s primary non-municipal service providers.
Men who didn’t fit at Oxford Street were sent to spend the night at Preble Street’s resource center, a busy hub of case management and other services during the day, located above the organization’s soup kitchen at the corner of Preble and Portland streets.
Then, in 2005, Preble Street opened Logan Place, a supportive housing facility that offered permanent living quarters and services to 30 of the city’s chronically homeless, regardless of their addictions, mental health issues, or other circumstances.
The project was an instant success, and it slashed the overflow demand to nothing virtually on its own, both Gardner and Swann said. Preble Street followed that with a similar home for chronically homeless women, Florence House. For the next three years, the city did not require overflow shelters.
"We had successfully wrenched the system in a way that worked," Swann said. "With just one creative housing option, we were able to really make a difference."
The supportive housing approach saved lives, and money, and even represented a "change (in) the conversation about homelessness," he said.
But with the recession in 2008 came slowly rising numbers at the shelters. The homeless population overall is now 20 percent higher than it was then, and the city has been opening overflow shelters nearly every night since January 2011.
First Florence House filled its 10 beds, and the city began sending women to the refugee services office on Lancaster Street. That arrangement quickly proved unmanageable, Gardner said. Since there was space at Oxford Street, the formerly all-male shelter began housing women, too, in separate rooms.
But as more and more men continued to flood the 154-bed shelter, Oxford Street also needed an overflow shelter. The city once again began using Preble Street’s resource room as its overnight emergency shelter.
Most days since then, Preble Street staff had to shoo clients out the door at 6 p.m. Most head downstairs, where dinner is served at the same time.
While the hungry and homeless eat below, a pair of janitorial staffers rush to clean the hall-sized room, moving tables and chairs and washing the floor. As they finish, a team of city-employed workers from Oxford Street arrive carrying industrial-sized laundry sacks filled with towels and blankets.
Then they set up the "beds" – "a euphemism," Preble Street supervisor Mary Beth Sullivan said. They are simply plastic mats, perhaps 6 inches thick. A few people with doctor’s orders not to sleep on the floor are given cots, which take up more space.
The Oxford Street workers open the door to a large storage room and pull out one forest green mattress after another, lining them up half a foot from each other, as per fire code, along the walls of the main space and a narrow hall. The mats are no wider than the frame of a man of average height and weight; the preferred spots are along the walls, which affords greater privacy than those sandwiched between other "beds."
The team tries to finish setting up by 8 o’clock. When they told the crowd of men waiting to get in last Friday evening that they would be 15 minutes late to open the doors, one stormed off, vehemently claiming that the staff didn’t care about the welfare of the homeless. Another man watched him go and said he would return later, after calming down; he doesn’t handle changes well, the man said.
The Oxford Street shelter can hold 154 people. The overflow shelter at Preble Street has a capacity of 75. For the last several months, this maximum – which is itself flexible because the shelters cannot mix men and women and must sometimes leave beds empty in the women’s dorm room, and because cots for those with disabilities take up more space – has been surpassed a few times a month, Oxford Street Assistant Director Rob Parritt said.
"It’s reached the point of almost having to open every night," he said.
The current solution, when the city needs an emergency overflow shelter for the emergency overflow shelter, is to send people to the General Assistance waiting room at 196 Lancaster St.
The city calls it a "warming shelter." Here, the homeless are not allowed to lie down. They sit on chairs throughout the night; Oxford Street staff try to move people to shelter beds as people leave them, Parritt said.
The warming shelter has seen as many as 16 people, he said. By morning, the warming shelter is mostly empty; those that have not received beds tend to eventually venture off the uncomfortable chairs and out into the world once the sun rises.
Search for solutions
When the overflow shelter came into use again a year and a half ago, most officials thought it would be a temporary step.
"We certainly at that time didn’t think we’d be here a year later," Gardner said.
But now, the reality that the trend is anything but temporary is settling in.
"I think we need to prepare for it to get worse, or prepare for it to take some time to improve," Swann said. The recession started the flood, and increasingly the rickety life rafts that once kept the vulnerable from homelessness are out of reach.
"Not only are we seeing more people because of the recession, we’re seeing fewer options for them because the human services system is being dismantled," he said, a week before the state’s new, more restrictive General Assistance eligibility guidelines take effect.
And as the task force process stretches on, a question that once nagged at the edges now gnaws at the forefront of service providers’ conversations: Is the overflow shelter really workable? And can the city do better?
"… This overflow is not sustainable," Gardner said. "It’s not a good situation for the individuals seeking shelter, for the staff, for the building, and it doesn’t allow us to engage with folks the way we’d like to, because we’re just trying to provide shelter for the people who are present."
"It’s absolutely not the long-term option that’s going to work for Portland," Parritt said.
The alternatives are few, the immediate future bleak.
"The last time numbers were like this …" Parritt said, "we had Logan Place on the horizon. … (Now,) there is no Logan Place on the horizon. There’s no anything."
A search by a subcommittee of the Emergency Shelter Assessment Committee (which is separate from the city’s task force) for alternative spaces that the city could use as a shelter turned up just one viable option, he said.
That building, at 250 Anderson St. in East Bayside, is being assessed by the city, Gardner said. At 16,000 feet, it is significantly larger than the Oxford Street shelter, and is more conveniently designed. With just one floor and a mostly open floor plan, it would require fewer staff to keep watch, and it sits in a mostly industrial, non-residential area.
But it is also further from the center of the city and the Preble Street soup kitchen, the Healthcare for the Homeless clinic on Portland Street, and a host of other services that the homeless depend on.
And few social workers like the idea of more, or bigger shelters.
"Shelters in general are not a good response to homelessness," Gardner said. "Permanent supportive housing is the response to homelessness."
Andrew Cullen can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter: @ACullenFore.