Portland Mayor Kate Snyder delivered her final State of the City Address as mayor Monday afternoon, focusing primarily on the city’s housing and homelessness crises.
Mayor Snyder began her address by describing the perilous state of the economy since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic — which began shortly after she assumed her office.
“As we all know so well, there is no status quo,” Snyder said. “A new normal is consistently redefined, and our favorable economy from several years ago has been rocked by inflation, and like every other employer the City of Portland is down employees.”
The mayor said that the number of employee vacancies in the city is around 275, up from 250 last year.
“Today, when I look at last year’s intro, it feels an awful long time away — it feels like long ago,” she said. “We had not yet opened up the Homeless Services Center, a brand new, 208-bed, emergency shelter with wraparound services for people experiencing homelessness.”
“We had not yet used a school gym in the cold winter months so that asylum seeking families had some place to go,” she continued. “We hadn’t opened the Expo as a temporary housing situation for asylum seekers. We didn’t have 250 or more tents throughout the City of Portland.”
Snyder said that while the state of the city is different according to who you ask, consistent concerns of residents are safety, crime, housing availability and costs, homelessness and the “impacts of people with significant needs living outdoors in tents,” and the cost of living in Portland.
“The budget is our number one policy document,” Snyder said. “It is the place where decisions that this Council make live — it’s where you can see our priorities.”
The mayor explained that the City Council’s focus has been on directing COVID-era federal funds from the American Rescue Plan into municipal infrastructure, services, and staffing.
According to Snyder, Portland currently has over 1,059 dwellings under construction — 202 of which are dedicated affordable housing units.
Additionally, this year the city has approved 659 new housing units for construction as of September.
“Portland has consistently been the jurisdiction to produce the most housing in Cumberland County, and the state, for well over the last decade — as befits leadership from Maine’s largest city,” Snyder said, while adding that “the demand and the need for more housing remains more acute than ever.”
Moving to the issue of homelessness, Snyder said that it is the “number one thing on people’s minds.”
“I have to remind us all that all of our departments are working hard to do what they do — and at this moment they are all working hard to support the city’s response to homelessness,” the mayor explained, saying that all aspects of municipal government have been effected by the homelessness crisis.
Snyder commended city staff for their response last winter in finding shelter for “asylum seeking families in particular” at a school gym — families that were later moved into the Portland Exposition Building, where they remained until this August.
The mayor also applauded the recent contract to build a new private 180-bed shelter in the city’s Riverton neighborhood dedicated to single asylum seekers.
“It’s tempting to say, ‘can’t you just?'” Snyder said. “‘Can’t you just open that World Gym?’, ‘can’t you just use that Walgreens that’s empty?’, ‘can’t you just’ do a lot of things that seem like a simple solution to a very complex problem — but sometimes that doesn’t fit.”
Mayor Snyder reiterated the mission statement of the city’s Encampment Crisis Response Team (ECRT), which is to connect homeless individuals from the encampments with shelter and housing before eventually sweeping the encampment.
“Nothing happens fast enough — ever — but I know the intent here is to as quickly as possible move people out of tents and into shelter,” she said.
“We’re in the midst of an unprecedented crisis, with over 250 tents in the City of Portland,” she added. “We have people in need, we have cold weather around the corner, we have significant public health and safety issues — time is of the essence.”
The mayor went on to briefly outline the city’s efforts on sustainability, as well as new investments into diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives.
“The Council made it clear that equity is the lens that we want to look through,” Snyder said. “It’s the lens that prioritizes racial, social, and justice equity — when it comes to housing, homelessness, climate and sustainability.”
Turning to the business community, Snyder said that the Council is aware that the “impacts of growing encampments, untreated mental health, substance use, and associated behaviors, have pushed many of our small business to the brink, imperiling their ability to provide safe environments for their employees and customers.”
“We must address our issues, look elsewhere to understand what works and what doesn’t, if we want to continue being the community of choice for small business that serve residents and visitors alike,” she said.
“It’s so easy to disdain and to point fingers,” Snyder said. “But I think we need to be here for the work, and not for the fight.”
“We have so much work in front of us, city staff has so much work in front of them — we are here as partners with our community, as partners with staff, and as partners with one another, and I’m terribly optimistic that we will tackle the problems we face, and we will do it much better if we do it together,” she concluded.