Portland to consider expanding, privatizing homeless shelter

The Portland City Council on Monday night agreed to study consolidating, expanding and privatizing the city’s Oxford Street Homeless Shelter, currently Maine’s largest and only municipally run shelter.

The word "privatizing" often brings to mind situations where governments hand over the management of public institutions to private corporations, under the auspice that the corporations can run them more cost effectively. Those proposals are often met with public consternation, as concerns arise over whether corporations will prioritize profits over the well-being of the public constituencies they’re entrusted with.

In the current case of Portland considering the privatization of its homeless shelter, the entity being discussed to take primary control of the operation is none other than Preble Street, a nonprofit and longtime partner in the city’s efforts to provide services for the homeless.

There is zero concern I can detect about Preble Street and its leadership team, led for decades by community pillar Mark Swann, overlooking the needs of the homeless in favor of profits.

With that out of the way, the strategy the city is considering here would still represent a major change.

Monday night’s vote by the City Council – to appoint a task force to study the feasibility of a consolidated homeless shelter – came in the midst of an ongoing publicity battle between Portland and Gov. Paul LePage’s administration over the city’s distribution of General Assistance welfare benefits. That said, the possibility of establishing a new, consolidated and larger homeless shelter is not in direct response to LePage’s criticisms that Portland overspends on GA benefits.

Swann and Acting City Manager Sheila Hill-Christian, among others, have been talking about a consolidated homeless shelter for months, going back to last summer.

So what would this look like and how would it be different?

Currently, the city runs its Oxford Street Shelter, which has a capacity of 154, but has been maxed out every night for years, with dozens of others staying in makeshift overflow spaces at the Preble Street Resource Center or in one of the city’s Department of Health and Human Services lobbies. Still many more give up and spend each night on the streets.

In a memorandum delivered to the City Council in advance of Monday night’s meeting, city DHHS Director Dawn Stiles described the city-run shelter this way: "The Oxford [Street] Shelter is poorly laid out and overcrowded and it is often necessary to use two overflow locations."

"Our current shelter is not owned by the city, it’s leased from a private landlord, so we don’t have long-term control of that site. It’s currently not optimal," said City Councilor Ed Suslovic, head of the council’s Public Safety, Health and Human Services Committee, Monday night. "With meals in one location and the shelter in another location, and with varying hours, these individuals are constantly being shuttled and … shuffled back and forth."

The city is now eyeing the feasibility of a single, consolidated homeless shelter on a site to be determined which would be large enough so that two overflow sites would not be necessary. Preble Street would take over primary operation of the facility, which would, in theory, also include the soup kitchen and administrative offices Preble Street currently already runs nearby.

This way, shelter services and other associated services – meals, etc. – would be at a single site and it would have the capacity to handle what’s consistently been more demand than the current shelter can accommodate.

Under that plan, Preble Street would still work closely with the city of Portland. However, the city would basically pay Preble Street to manage its homeless services.

The city’s Social Services Division has crunched some preliminary numbers and has reached the conclusion the city would save between $675,000 and $814,000 (while the council’s packet didn’t go into great detail on where those savings would come from, it’s a safe bet much of it can be attributed to no longer having to maintain the current facilities, as well as greater cost efficiency with consolidating services under one organization).

One prospective site for the consolidated homeless shelter facility was at city-owned land at 65 Hanover St., but the most recent DHHS memo to the council described that lot as "not an ideal site." Suslovic said that the 65 Hanover St. lot is not large enough for a 300-bed shelter, but also said the study group may determine the city could get by with a shelter smaller than that size.

Determining an alternative site for such a facility would be part of the council study group’s work scope.

It’s also worth noting that the Social Services Division’s cost analysis came prior to the most recent dustup with LePage, and the division acknowledges that the financial impact of the change may be dramatically different once the governor’s demands about shelter billing are implemented. (LePage is requiring that shelter funding be billed based on the housing costs for eligible individuals instead of overall operating costs.)

The council’s study group will also look into an alternative plan of developing a series of smaller, scattered homeless shelters throughout the city, but according to the latest DHHS memo, the early math indicates "the costs appear to be prohibitively high."

The appointment of a study group, which was given an approximately eight-month time frame to review the possibility, does not obligate the city to implement the plan. If the group comes back with news that the consolidation effort doesn’t work financially either for the city or Preble Street, the City Council can just spike the whole idea at that point.

It’s also important to note, as Councilor Jill Duson emphasized Monday, the study group will also look at a wide range of other ways to improve its shelter operations, and may come back with plans for greater efficiencies outside of the consolidation plan. The recommendation of consolidation is not a predetermined outcome of the task force’s review.

The task force is proposed to include representatives from the city, Preble Street, the Portland Police Department, nearby neighborhood associations, Avesta Housing or the Community Housing of Maine, Homeless Voices for Justice, Milestone Foundation, taxpayers and University of New England, among other constituencies.