Simply adding more beds at Portland’s Homeless Services Center won’t solve the City’s unsheltered homelessness crisis. If we want people living in tents to access shelter, it is critical that the services provided are delivered with their needs and voices at the forefront.
On Tuesday, September 26, 2023, the Portland City Council will hear comments regarding their proposal to temporarily increase capacity at the City of Portland’s Homeless Services Center (HSC). Andrew Bove, Vice President of Social Work, and Bob Avery, Street Outreach Caseworker, both prepared testimony highlighting that adding more beds at the HSC without addressing the barriers to entry for people experiencing unsheltered homelessness won’t get more people into shelter. If the sweep of the Marginal Way Park n Ride happens when we have not changed our current approach and added new resources, Portland and its citizens will keep facing the same challenges again and again.
Preble Street Testimony to Portland City Council on Proposal to Increase Homeless Services Center Capacity by Emergency Order
Good evening, Mayor Snyder, and members of the Council,
My name is Andrew Bove. I am the Vice President of Social Work at Preble Street and I have lived in Portland nearly my entire life.
We are facing an unprecedented crisis of unsheltered homelessness in our community – but it doesn’t need to be this way, and there are tangible steps we can take right now to resolve it.
Preble Street recently put forth seven recommendations to address the crisis we are facing. The most urgent for tonight’s discussion is to ensure that the shelter services our community is providing are low-barrier, accessible, and evidenced-based.
Adding shelter capacity alone will not bring people inside. If we want people living in tents to access shelter, it is critical that the services provided are delivered with their needs and voices at the forefront.
This was exactly Preble Street’s intent when we opened Elena’s Way Wellness Shelter last fall, Maine’s first and only shelter designed specifically for individuals experiencing unsheltered homelessness. We examined models across the country, reviewed all available research, but most importantly, listened to those living outside.
Elena’s Way has proven to be incredibly effective, and individuals who for years were either unable or unwilling to access shelter in the Portland community have found stability. Elena’s Way has no curfew, allows couples to sleep near one another, utilizes a flexible intake process which prioritizes people with complex physical and behavioral health needs, and employs countless other social work best practices in every program element. It’s a model that works.
If we want our vulnerable neighbors to come inside, we need to make shelter as accessible as possible. One-size-fits-all approaches and black-and-white procedures do not work, and simply adding additional shelter capacity without a critical examination of the services being provided is misguided and inefficient.
If individuals living in tents are declining shelter, we need to understand why. Saying no to shelter should not be the end of the conversation, but the beginning. Through the existing mission of the Encampment Crisis Response Team, there is an opportunity for those with lived experience and providers to come together alongside City staff and examine accessibility challenges at the Homeless Service Center, so that the needs of our neighbors living outside can be incorporated into the shelter’s design and operations and access to this critical community resource can be increased.
Whether there is one shelter bed open tonight, or 50 next week, or 150 beds in November when the new Riverside shelter opens, none of it matters if our neighbors living in tents are hesitant to go because of operational challenges that can be fixed. Adding more beds will not solve anything unless we lower the barriers to entering the City’s Homeless Services Center, redefine the services being provided there in light of best practices, and elevate the voices and needs of those with lived experience.
As our community determines next steps in addressing this unprecedented crisis, Preble Street urges the City to address accessibility at the Homeless Service Center and postpone additional encampment sweeps until the Riverside shelter opens and more shelter space is made available.
As Preble Street’s founder Joe Kreisler once said, “Part of being alive is making sure that others are, too.” At this pivotal moment facing our community, let us choose compassion and understanding over stigma and judgement, and work alongside one another to resolve this crisis. Resolution is possible, if we work together.
Andrew Bove, LCSW
Vice President of Social Work
Good evening, Mayor Synder and members of the Council,
Thank you for the opportunity to speak today.
My name is Bob Avery, and I am a Portland resident and Preble Street outreach caseworker. I have worked closely with people experiencing unsheltered homelessness over the past two years, providing food, clothing, and assisting with accessing community resources including shelter.
I want to start by saying I feel increased shelter capacity for Portland is important. There is not enough shelter for people around the city. I work with folks daily who ask me where to go and where they can sleep, and I receive phone calls from folks asking where they can spend the night. I work regularly with the city to help people access the Homeless Services Center. As a Portland resident, I hope that we can provide more shelter for folks in crisis and support our most vulnerable members of our community.
Increased shelter beds will expand capacity at the Homeless Services Center but will not increase accessibility. Speaking with folks in the encampments there are significant concerns with the shelter that prevent them from going.
Many people I talk with continue to feel the distance from Portland, and shelter culture discourages them from spending time at the HSC. The nearly five-mile distance and format makes coming into Portland to meet with case management and for doctor appointments and treatment a challenge. Many people I’ve talked to spoke about how the culture remains similar to the Oxford Street Shelter, where they felt they couldn’t have conversations with staff to resolve issues and the culture was more punitive. Experiences being criminally trespassed from Oxford Street continue to keep people from reconnecting with the new shelter and long intakes present a challenge for anyone whose mental and physical health prevent them from navigating the intake process. I have observed this firsthand.
In spite of these accessibility challenges, the city has continued to sweep encampments, forcing people around the city to pick-up and move with no immediate support in place. Attempting to hide our unsheltered citizens is not a solution. People sleeping outside need greater healthcare access, food resources, and supportive services. They need consistency as well and sweeps force people to new areas further hindering connections in the community, cutting supports, and impeding progress towards housing.
We have a housing crisis in Portland and additional “emphasis areas” across the city only hurt the work outreach workers are doing with people living in tents. The cycle of take down, move, and loss drives out any work towards long term housing. By giving folks in tents more time to stay in one place, they will begin to connect with resources and support. Most people I connect with do not feel safe sleeping outside, but stopping forced relocations is a big step towards finding stability to access supports and reach for some of the goals they carry with them.
More shelter beds are a crucial resource, but bunk beds in the HSC are not the answer to the accessibility challenges of the unsheltered community. I hope that the city will consider further changes to address the barriers to shelter and look to grow in their capacity to connect with the hundreds of Portland residents sleeping on the street. This is a crucial time for progress, I hope the city of Portland will step up and meet the needs of some of its most vulnerable citizens.