Maine Voices: We must not allow Portland’s budget cuts to put more people on the streets

Last Tuesday, more than 200 people showed up in front of Portland City Hall to demonstrate their opposition to disturbing policy changes embedded in the draft municipal budget. These policy changes abandon the city of Portland’s 28-year commitment to provide emergency shelter for anyone who needs it.

If this budget passes, there will be no emergency accommodations for homeless families when the family shelter is full. Children whose families are in crisis will be turned away with no options.

Currently, after a city caseworker has determined that there is absolutely no other place for a family to go, the city houses the family in a motel room until there is space at the family shelter. Last year alone, 269 families – destitute children and their parents – landed in this safety net of last resort.

In addition, this budget will force the closing of the overflow shelter for adults, which acts as an emergency shelter when all the other shelters in Portland are full. Each and every night, 75 people line up at this shelter to get a thin mat on the floor and safety for the night.

So, if this budget takes effect July 1, more than 100 people, including children, will have nowhere to go. Families will sleep in their cars, if they have a car. People will find doorways, parking garages and other hidden spots to try to rest and be safe.

Those of us who live or work in Portland can expect to see many more visible indications of street homelessness. Every night.

To save $139,000 needed for the overflow shelter out of a total municipal budget of $221 million, the city will put lives at risk.

This is bad policy. It’s as simple as that.

We understand the pressure the city is under from Augusta. And we absolutely know that no one at City Hall is happy to be proposing this. Which is why Preble Street and Homeless Voices for Justice have been working hard to effect policies in Augusta that will protect basic human rights. We’ve testified at more than 30 legislative hearings this session so far.

We understand the serious budget problems the city is facing. But that doesn’t change the fact that this is wrong, for several reasons.

First, it’s premature. The city is still missing several important factors needed to determine next year’s human services budget.

The state’s own budget hasn’t been passed yet, and it will have significant implications for the city’s finances. There is a shelter funding bill that is still making its way through the Legislature.

And the city is still waiting for the result of its joint lawsuit with the Maine Municipal Association and other Maine communities over retrieving their unpaid General Assistance reimbursements.

The resolution of these matters will dramatically affect the city’s budget, so let’s wait for them to be resolved.

Secondly, this community has had nowhere near enough time to plan any possible alternatives, or come up with other options.

Sadly, several other shelters have closed over the years in Portland, and each time there was a collaborative effort to put a transition plan in place to replace the shelter beds being lost and/or develop individualized plans for those directly affected by the shelter closing.

Social service organizations – and the city is one – have a professional obligation to close programs in a manner that mitigates the hardship and pain suffered by its clients and lessens the disruptions to the community as a whole. This has not happened. There hasn’t been time.

Finally, it’s morally wrong to turn away desperate and hurting people who need our help.

I’ve always been very proud to live in a city that embraces the notion that kindness and compassion matter.

Let’s continue to be a community that doesn’t vilify poor people, that doesn’t blame poor people for being poor, but rather realizes that we all could use a hand during our darkest nights. Let’s continue to care about each other. Let’s continue to care for each other.

City councilors will vote on the proposed city budget Monday at 7 p.m. Please join us at City Hall and tell our councilors to do the right thing.

About the Author: Mark Swann is executive director of Preble Street.