On Monday evening the Portland City Council voted to approve a contract to build a new 180-bed shelter targeted towards single asylum seekers in the Riverton neighborhood.
The city will enter a 3-year agreement with Developers Collaborate (DC) Management to build the shelter, which will be funded by a $4.59 million grant from the Maine State Housing Authority.
The grant funds will be partially reimbursed through the state’s General Assistance reimbursement program.
City Manager Danielle West said that should the level of General Assistance reimbursement be changed at the state level, the Council would need to come back with an appropriation order or other ways to allocate funds to the shelter.
“This agreement does lock us in, and so that would be the risk that we would be asking you all to take,” West said.
The shelter will be located at 166 Riverside Industrial Parkway, directly next to the Maine Turnpike.
For the first 18 months of the 3-year agreement, the city will be responsible for providing services at the shelter, after which time the Maine Immigrants’ Rights Coalition (MIRC) will take over as service provider.
Mufalo Chitam, Executive Director of MIRC, spoke in support of the shelter during the public comment portion of Monday’s meeting.
“Your concerns about how fast this is going, are valid,” Chitam said. “Yes is it fast. But we ask you to vote from a place of humanizing this crisis.”
Chitam referenced the recent asylum seeker crisis in Sanford, where she said initially Sanford residents were angry about the asylum seekers in their community, but were able to find homes for them.
According to Chitam, the shelter will be called the “Center for Transition Asylum Needs,” although the city’s contract says that it will serve as an “emergency homeless shelter.”
Several Riverton residents gave public comment in opposition to the shelter.
“It feels like Riverton is being left without a voice, with just a handful of days between this being announced and the vote taking place today,” George Folster, a Riverton resident said.
“Having the vote after the informational meeting tomorrow I think would make for a much more inclusive government process,” Folster said.
Kate Sykes, a resident of the Deering Center neighborhood, raised similar concerns to Folster in her public comment against the shelter.
“First of all, it is ludicrous that you’re having an informational session tomorrow about this, but you’re taking a vote tonight,” Sykes said.
“Here we are again pushing the issue of homelessness out to the borders of the city where no one can see it in order to make a downtown core that’s ripe for development,” she said.
“In addition, this grant money is coming under the heading of being for long-term solutions to homelessness. Yet I’ve heard people here tonight say that this is about emergency shelter, so which is it?” She added.
One resident, who lives across from where the shelter will be built along with her 89-year-old mother, cited concerns that the shelter would create an unsafe environment for her family.
“I did not choose to live next to 180-beds,” she said. “I’ve worked my whole life, my whole life to be back here, mind my own business at that dead end street.”
“I’ve lived in Portland and I’ve seen what happens at Oxford Street. I live in Portland and I see what happens at Riverside. I see people laying across the sidewalks,” she said.
“These people can get in my yard, they’re singles,” she added. “I take exception to that, I have my mother there.”
“To me it just seems like it’s so unfair that I have built my life, I didn’t just land here and look for somebody to help me, I have worked my whole life to be there and to establish myself,” she said. “And you know what somebody is going to sit there and arbitrarily decide and say you know what this is a good idea let’s put this back there.”
Kevin Bunker of Developers Collaborative explained in Monday’s meeting that the vote on the contract to build the shelter had to happen quickly due to the terms of the grant funds.
“The source of those funds is winter warming shelter money,” Bunker said. “Colloquially, it has a different name, but basically the grant requires the shelters be open for this coming winter. So, everything is backing into how much construction time it takes to get this thing ready for the winter or we can’t accept the money.”
The motion to approve the contract passed by an 8 to 1 vote, the one “no” being from Councilor Mark Dion, who said that he had received a “notable volume of feedback” from his constituents regarding the shelter.
“Many of those who called were under the impression that this initiative was directed at creating a derivative of the Homeless Services Center, another homeless shelter,” Dion said.
“There’s been very little understanding the intent was to address the unhoused immigrants who’ve arrived in the city, and even that concept for us has evolved from immigrant families to now unhoused immigrant males,” he said.
“We need to clarify that there are two significant categories of unhoused individuals in this community,” he added. “There are those who are unhoused by virtue of their refugee status, and there are those that are unhoused by individual circumstance, and they need different kinds of services.”
“Our one resource for the circumstantially unhoused has been overtaken by the unhoused who are here because of a political decision to allow them into the country for any number of reasons,” Dion said.