Portland City Council approves homeless shelter task force

PORTLAND – The future of city homeless shelters will be examined and evaluated by a new task force created by a unanimous vote of city councilors Monday.

Councilors also approved easements to allow installation of natural gas lines to the Portland Technology Park off Rand Road near the Maine Turnpike, but postponed signing a two-part agreement on reconstructing Forest Avenue in Woodford’s Corner.

"Is there a better way to run our shelter, is there a more efficient way to run our shelter?" Councilor Ed Suslovic asked as he supported the creation of the task force.

Suslovic is chairman of the council’s Public Safety, Health and Human Services Committee, which forwarded the task force recommendation at its March 10 meeting.

The task force idea was first discussed by the committee in January, and the intent is to conduct a feasibility study on consolidating shelter services with the goal of reducing homelessness.

The city leases space at the Oxford Street Shelter, and operates overflow shelters at the City Hall Social Services waiting room and a day room at the Preble Street Resource Center.

Suslovic called the shelter conditions "less than optimal" because of the floor plan and lack of space.

A memo from city Health and Human Services Director Dawn Stiles estimated shifting the shelter to a one-floor operation could save the city as much as $813,000 annually. The estimate was made before a state Department of Health and Human Services audit cited the city for improperly seeking state reimbursement for operation expenses instead of a per-occupant fee.

Shifting to a per-head charge could also cost the city $825,000 in state aid, Suslovic said.

Task force members have not been named. They will be asked to look at how many people need to be served and how those eligibility requirements could change, the scope of services to be provided, what kind of permanent housing can be arranged, funding sources and possible alternative sites for shelters.

Stiles said she expects shelter populations to be reduced once the city better complies with state DHHS audit.