Opening a new emergency shelter – or, I should say, trying to open a new emergency shelter – is perhaps the most challenging thing a social service agency can do. The politics are terrible, the neighborhood response can be vicious, the funding is woefully inadequate to both build and operate it year after year and the work itself is challenging, draining and at times traumatizing for staff. This is true in Brunswick, in Bangor and across the country. And it’s certainly true in Maine’s largest city, Portland.
In the past 25 years only two new shelters have opened in Portland, while eight small shelters – spread throughout a few different neighborhoods – have closed. The two new shelters – Florence House and the Joe Kreisler Teen Shelter – were successfully opened by Preble Street only after bruising battles, including a lawsuit filed to stop one of them. A third shelter we’re opening at 5 Portland St. went through a similarly grueling process.
As if opening and running an emergency shelter isn’t already an incredibly difficult process, three different efforts are now afloat in Portland that will only add to the challenge: new licensing requirements for shelters; a moratorium on new shelters, and a citizen initiative to limit the size of any new shelters.
It’s heartbreaking that during a public health emergency, when the need for safe, professionally run, accessible, public health-informed shelters has never been more acute, there is increased energy to actually hinder, slow or stop entirely the development of new shelters.
It’s a lot easier to stop things than it is to create solutions. Negative power is so much easier to wield than working toward productive and attainable measures. To propose only to block or hinder the development of shelters without doing anything simultaneously to create the necessary pathways (zoning, funding, etc.) to establish those small shelters does nothing to promote the well-being of individuals experiencing homelessness. Nor does it serve the community at large.