Many cities in Maine are facing dueling crises at the moment that are both drawing on largely the same pool of resources — an influx of asylum seekers and an ever-growing homeless population.
In responding to these crises, cities are generally called upon to make decisions regarding the distribution of the same scarce resource — housing.
Particularly when considered in the context of the ongoing conversation surrounding the availability and construction of affordable housing, the ways in which different cities go about addressing these twin crises are especially interesting.
Portland is one city that has taken notably diverging approaches to solving the problem of finding housing for both asylum seekers and the city’s homeless population.
For the past several months, city officials have been working to secure alternative housing accommodations for the asylum seekers who had been living in the Portland Expo. With the shelter in the Expo set to close in advance of the upcoming basketball season, officials moved quickly to secure alternative arrangements.
Several weeks ago, the city finalized housing agreements for these asylum seekers with hotels located in Freeport and Lewiston. On the day of the Expo’s closure, the city provided the asylum seekers transportation to these hotels for themselves as well as for their belongings.
The city will be spending roughly $550,000 of general assistance funds to cover the costs associated with these arrangements.
At the same time, city officials have also been working to address Portland’s burgeoning homeless crisis. With a number of substantial encampments located throughout the city, there seems to be a heightened sense of urgency surrounding the issue.
For the past several months, the City of Portland has been working to clean up these encampments, but the availability of alternative accommodations for those who are displaced as a result of these efforts is unclear.
The city’s push earlier this year to close down the encampment located on the Bayside Trail between Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods reportedly left those who had been camping there with no place to go, as Portland’s shelters were already at capacity.
Likely as a result of this, a substantial encampment developed on the state-owned Park and Ride on Marginal Way. As a result of this, the Maine Department of Transportation made the decision to block off half the parking lot for the encampment.
Since then, there have been numerous incidents at the encampment that have proven dangerous both to those in the surrounding area and those who are living there.
Most recently, a machete was found on the property of a nearby business after having apparently been abandoned by one of the people living in the Park and Ride encampment.
Several business owners in the area have raised concerns about the safety of their customers and employees as a result of the camp’s presence, citing complaints over the discovery of human excrement on their property, as well as potentially dangerous interactions with those who were likely under the influence of drugs.
As Portland has taken steps to clear additional homeless encampments throughout the city, officials have promised to offer all individuals some form of housing, although the specifics of these arrangements were not disclosed.
Those working on the ground with the homeless individuals living in these encampments have said that the city needs to slow things down because there is simply not enough shelter space for everyone.
“There are not 50 shelter beds available in the city right now,” Donna Yellen, Vice President of Strategic Initiatives for Preble Street, told Maine Public. “That’s why we need the time to do this.”
Other cities throughout the state have also found themselves dealing with similar crises, although not necessarily to the same extent as Portland.
For example, South Portland has been struggling recently to house asylum seekers, as well as homeless individuals, in light of losing federal and state COVID-19 funding.
Hotels throughout the city have been housing asylum seekers, alongside some homeless Mainers, for some time now, but back in April, the City Council declared that all hotels were to cease acting as shelters by June 30th of this year.
Earlier this summer, however, plans changed. The Howard Johnson Hotel located in the city will now be allowed to continue serving as a shelter through June 30, 2024. As of June of this year, 128 hotel rooms were providing shelter to 367 “asylum seeking individuals,” 165 of whom were children.
The agreement states, however, that no further extensions beyond this point may be requested or granted.
It is unclear how many homeless Mainers have previously benefited from hotel housing, although given that the South Portland City Council refers to this as a “transitional housing program for asylum seeker,” it is unlikely that many — if any — will in the future.
In order to make the agreement with the Howard Johnson Hotel legal, the South Portland City Council passed two ordinances earlier this week, on September 5, to allow the hotel to operate as a “de facto shelter” for the time being.
The two ordinance amendments are specifically targeted at legalizing this agreement and would not affect the illegality of making similar agreements in the future. That said, it is worth considering whether the passage of these amendments will make it more likely that amendments along these same lines may be made again.
Lewiston — the location of the hotel where a number of those who had been living in the Portland Expo have been relocated — has been fighting a housing battle.
The Lewiston Housing Authority has had plans to purchase a former Ramada Inn to convert it into 177 affordable housing units for those who are on “the fringes of homelessness” — “people facing evictions or rent increases, homeless youth, people fleeing domestic violence, disabled veterans and others.”
In order to do this, however, the Housing Authority would need to obtain a zoning variance to decrease the minimum required dwelling size from 300 square feet to 282 square feet — the size of roughly 80% of rooms in the former Ramada Inn.
The Board of Appeals denied this request, however, stopping the plan in its tracks. Many members of the Board of Appeals believe that issuing the variance would “alter the central character of the property,” meaning that the request would fail to meet one of the four criteria that would need to be met in order for the variance to be approved.
The MaineHousing grant that would have covered roughly half the cost of the purchase price for the former hotel has since been reallocated.
Just this week, the Lewiston City Council tabled proposals for regulating and placing a moratorium on such “transitional housing” pending conversations with the city’s planning board.
The proposed regulations would have required transitional housing facilities to abide by the same restrictions as homeless shelters — including a 120 bed cap, 24/7 staffing, and a location in the downtown business district.
The City Council is set to meet with the planning board on September 12 to discuss these restrictions, as well as the possibility of a moratorium.
It is unclear how these potential restrictions, as well as existing zoning requirements, impact the Lewiston hotel that is currently housing asylum seekers from Portland.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem like cities in Maine will find themselves free of either of these crises anytime in the near future. It remains to be seen just how these municipalities will opt to handle these issues — as well as what their priorities will be — should these problems continue to persist.