South Portland City Council Reckons with Refugee, Homelessness Crisis

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South Portland City Councilor Jocelyn Leighton said they were having "major feels" about homelessness in the city

The South Portland City Council met Tuesday night to work on rules that might resolve the ongoing refugee and homelessness crisis the city is experiencing.

“Our current zoning and license ordinances really are insufficient, or don’t deal with the issue of shelters, in particular homeless shelters,” said City Manager Scott Morelli.

Morelli and the City Council have been debating since December a draft ordinance that would allow the city to effectively accommodate a large population of unhoused who have flocked to the city.

Since early 2020, South Portland has operated as a de facto refugee camp thanks to a confluence of poorly crafted federal, state, and local policies. Loose federal immigration laws and Maine’s welfare rules have made Maine an attractive destination for people who enter the country illegally, or who come seeking asylum, including two large populations that arrived in 2020 from sub-Saharan Africa and Haiti.

Laws signed by both former President Donald Trump and President Joe Biden provided massive amounts of funding under the Emergency Rental Assistance (ERA) program, part of which paid for several hundred asylum seeker, refugee, and illegal alien families to stay at Maine hotels, predominantly in South Portland. Since that time, those hotels have become migrant communities, but city officials and residents are looking for a long-term solution.

Funding ran out last November for the ERA, pushing the program’s beneficiaries to the brink of crisis. But the first bill Gov. Janet Mills signed into law, a large $473 million spending proposal, contained a small amount of money to continue paying more than $7,000 per month per hotel room to keep those non-citizen families accommodated, at least until the spring.

The hotels and motels are happy to have guaranteed payment for customers, but they expect to start losing money on rooms rented to migrants when tourist season heats up.

South Portland has also bore some of the cost of housing the “New Mainer” population, and the city council is working on a provide long-term solution that will treat the homeless population humanely while minimizing potential tax increases.

Under the current proposals, the hotels and motels in South Portland that are currently hosting large migrant populations will be prevented from doing so in the future. Instead, the city is looking for build, or have built, a number of shelters to house the unhoused. The council is also considering providing a city-owned building to a non-profit for it to become a shelter.

The draft ordinance would prevent lodging establishments from acting as shelters, set performance standards for any new shelters, and create a licensing requirement for shelter operators.

There are currently no such shelters in South Portland, which is why hotels, motels, and some churches in the area have been filling the need.

At Tuesday’s meeting, the council debated where in the city shelters should be permitted, whether to allow shelters within mixed-use developments, whether the shelters should require space for the unhoused to be during the day, and what kind of limits should be placed on shelter capacity.

The key tension of the debate revolved around whether South Portland should have one shelter with a 200-bed capacity or multiple shelters with 50-bed capacities.

The Maine Housing Authority has allocated $21 million for non-profits who want to operate shelters in Maine, and the council wants to move quickly to provide regulatory clarity to any potential operators who might apply for those funds, as the deadline for applications is Feb. 3.

If South Portland ratifies an ordinance legalizing shelters, a potential shelter operator could apply for taxpayer money to help with costs.

“If we’re having a big facility, there’s only a few zones that I would like to see it in,” said Natalie West, an at-large councilor.

She said she’d like a prospective large shelter regulated like a hospital.

Councilor Richard T. Matthews said he thought that the shelters could become a breeding ground for people to hang out at, which in turn could foster drug-related crime. He leaned toward several smaller shelters rather than one big shelter.

District Three Counsilor Misha C. Pride said he could see the city partnering with a non-profit to run a facility in an existing building.

“The building cost is what most non-profits will struggle with,” said Pride.

Pride said the biggest problem with accommodating people in hotels was the lack of services and security, which generated a lot of calls to city police. He said proper shelter facilities would end up saving the city money by reducing service calls, health care expenses, and general assistance allocations.

District One City Councilor Jocelyn Leighton was shocked that only a few South Portland residents turned out for the discussion about the draft ordinance.

“I’m really shocked that there’s not more public comment on this,” she said. “Really, South Portland?”

She said she appreciated that the council was keeping in mind the need to provide “singular care for different genders.”

Leighton said proposals for shelters should keep in mind that the traditional Men’s Shelter vs Women’s Shelter dynamic wouldn’t work for all of the unhoused in South Portland who are non-binary.

“There are transgender, there are non binary, there are intersex who are unhoused, so the binary thing doesn’t work for them,” she said.

During the meeting, Leighton, who describes herself on her website as a “queer feminist artist,” took to Instagram to castigate white people in the city for not coming to the workshop.

“I’m just wondering where all the white people in particular are in this community? she posted. “Especially those that marched in 2020 Black Lives Matter,” she wrote.

In another post the following night, she said she was “having some major feels” about the issue.

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