Supporting a two-tiered, common sense approach to zoning changes

June 02, 2017
Mark Swann Testimony of Mark Swann, Preble Street executive director, regarding proposed city zoning changes for homeless shelter siting.

June 5, 2017 meeting of the Portland City Council

First, let me thank the Mayor, the city council, city staff and the city manager for taking on the extremely challenging task of re-envisioning, relocating and improving the city’s Oxford Street Shelter. Preble Street is in 100% agreement that the current system of care for single adults experiencing homelessness is sorely lacking.

Despite common misperceptions, there are not actually that many more people seeking shelter right now than in the past. The difference is that several shelters spread around the city have closed over the years and consequently the city and Preble Street have had to fill the gaps over and over again. In one neighborhood. In facilities that were meant for a fraction of the number of people now coming for a place to sleep, or a hot meal. Ingraham closed a shelter, Youth Alternatives closed a shelter. The YWCA closed entirely, along with two shelters. Maine Adoption Placement Services closed a shelter. And Catholic Charities and Salvation Army got out of the shelter business.

With each of these shelters closing, more and more pressure was put on Oxford Street Shelter and one of our programs, the Preble Street Resource Center.

Right now what’s left of the so-called “system” is simply overloaded. Oxford Street Shelter was opened to serve about 1/5 the number it currently serves. And the Preble Street Resource Center was never designed nor intended to play the role of “day shelter” for all those shelters that move people out each morning and provide no services during the day.

The Resource Center was meant to provide hunger relief for the neighborhood and community as a whole, and to offer an array of social services for anyone who needed help finding a job, finding housing, connecting to other providers. The Preble Street Resource Center was not designed to be the daytime arm of the city’s Oxford Street Shelter, and we’d happily relinquish that role.

Best-intended efforts by the city and by Preble Street have forced both of us to pivot over and over again to meet a changing, evolving need as the human service system failed over and over again.

And what we’re left with clearly doesn’t work. It doesn’t work for the city, for the neighborhood, and most importantly—it doesn’t work for those we serve.

We want to be part of changes, and we’ve expressed that for many years now.

So, again: we’re thrilled that the city is moving towards changes and we’re very willing to participate and help in that effort. Preble Street is in support of the proposed zoning changes as we understand that is the first, vital step in fixing things.

And it makes sense to us, when relocating a shelter the size of Oxford Street Shelter, to consider carefully the space needs for a facility that size, and the right fit in any given neighborhood.

So we’re supporting the zoning changes tonight. But we want to add two points that we think are important:

One: while we understand and support the proposed change, we also plan to weigh in when any specific site or sites are eventually proposed. Just because a potential site might fit into a newly eligible zone does not mean it will be the right location.

The city needs to take many considerations in mind when making that decision, not just zoning compatibility. Considerations like:

  • Accessibility. Homelessness is a deeply isolating experience and access to the community—to churches, mosques and temples, to the library, to the YMCA, and to mental health and medical services—are crucial for people to reach stability.
  • Integration. I remember hearing a Homeless Voices for Justice advocate talk poignantly about the critical importance of feeling that he was still part of the community…and that when that feeling was threatened, how easily depression would crash down on him.

    As you know, we have memorial services on average of about twice a month at our programs and it is not at all uncommon for people to attend who work at the public library, or Hannaford, or MECA, or USM because those people had meaningful relationships with the person who had died. Those relationships were built at those places, places of normalcy, welcoming places.

    Community, neighbors, and normalcy in the world around you help keep stability and hope alive. The shelter location needs to provide for that.

  • Transportation. So many people staying at oxford street have serious and persistent medical conditions that make it impossible for them to walk much of a distance at all, certainly not a half mile. So many people are in wheelchairs, use walkers and canes. And few can afford bus passes. And please learn from what happened with the move of the state DHHS building from Bayside to South Portland. Many people, people who need support and services, have lost them because they have no money for the bus or they missed the bus which caused them to miss an appointment which caused them to lose the help they need.And what about people who are working? I spoke with someone at our Learning Collaborative partnership with Maine Medical Center and Community Dental the other day. He was getting a tooth pulled. He sleeps on the floor of Oxford Street Shelter’s overflow shelter and has to get up at 5am every morning to get to work. Will there be a bus for him? Will there be a bus for the person working at a restaurant in the Old Port who finishes his shift at 11pm on Saturday night?
  • 24 hour services. One of the greatest indignities of homelessness in Portland is that people staying at the shelter must pack everything they own and cart it around each day. Any shelter must be designed as a 24-hour facility with the services people need to do the real work to move beyond homelessness.We appreciate that the city recognizes this and we commend them for incorporating that into their plans. Both Preble Street shelters, the Joe Kreisler Teen Shelter and the shelter at Florence House, are 24-hour programs. That is critical and we hear all the time from our clients what a huge difference it makes.As part of being open 24 hours, there has to be a wide range of social services delivered on site, of course: housing location; education; employment; mental health treatment, addiction services; legal assistance; medical care. We know that is part of the initial thinking and planning, which is great. But we caution the city to keep in mind that the first services to be cut when providers experience funding problems are outreach positions. And the community resources necessary to help people move beyond homelessness are often not available.

    We speak from experience. When we first opened the resource center in 1993 there were 15 different agencies providing services onsite. Today we have 3. As funding priorities and requirements changed, as they often do, the commitment from other agencies more or less disappeared over time. Today the only regular and consistent outside partners coming to the resource center are a volunteer lawyer group we developed with local law firms; nursing students from USM; and medical social workers from Maine Medical Center as part of our new partnership.

    Please learn from this, and be careful not to be shortsighted and plan for services on site only to be faced with the reality that the shelter clients will have to access services off site and therefore need to be close to other agencies.

The other point we want to make is to ask the council, when voting for this zoning change, to assertively direct the planning department to continue its work related to shelter zoning and consider a second-tier approach for smaller shelters, with more inclusive zoning.

This city, including two different task forces I sat on, has pretty much unanimously endorsed the concept of scattered, smaller shelters that are fully integrated into different neighborhoods around the city.

This is considered best practice, and is ideal for many reasons. And, in fact, there is a long history of shelters being spread around Portland: for over 20 years there was a domestic violence shelter with 24 beds in my neighborhood, Oakdale. Youth Alternatives Shelter that closed was 16 beds, right on the eastern prom. The shelter for pregnant and parenting teens was on Congress Street at the foot of Munjoy Hill. The YWCA had a 20 bed shelter for women, and 16 bed shelter for girls. And there were others.

Those shelters fit well into their respective neighborhoods, and we’d hate for the new zoning to exclude those types of shelters from opening again someday.

So, our request tonight is for you to vote in support of the zoning changes as presented, while keeping in mind that zoning can only be part of the decision-making when eventually siting a new shelter. And we’d ask you to direct the planning department to immediately begin work on a second-tier zoning approach for smaller shelters.

Thank you