A “mega-shelter” in Nason’s Corner isn’t the right solution to homelessness.

Building a large, centralized shelter in Nason’s Corner won’t go far enough to end homelessness, and could repeat many of the mistakes of Bayside in a new neighborhood.

As you have probably heard, the City of Portland is currently proposing to build a 200-bed homeless shelter in the Nason’s Corner neighborhood, on the campus of the Barron Center on Brighton Avenue.

This shelter would be designed to replace the Oxford Street Shelter in Bayside — a facility that is overcrowded, run-down and totally insufficient.

Conditions at Oxford Street have (quite accurately) been described as “inhumane,” and the concentration of social services in Bayside has led to an unsafe environment for residents and for those accessing services.

The Oxford Street shelter must be replaced. But what the City of Portland is proposing to build in Nason’s Corner — a large shelter with centralized services, in a residential neighborhood—may repeat many of the mistakes of the past without creating better outcomes for those in need.

Bigger isn’t always better

The proposed 200-bed shelter in Nason’s Corner would be the third largest homeless shelter in all of New England — larger than the largest facilities in Rhode Island (110 beds) and Connecticut (126 beds).

In fact, it is roughly equivalent in size to the largest shelter in the state of Washington: a 212-bed shelter in Seattle — a city ten times the size of Portland.

Why doesn’t Seattle have a larger shelter? Not because it doesn’t need it: some have speculated that Seattle is suffering from the most severe homeless crisis in the country.

No, Seattle doesn’t have a larger shelter because bigger isn’t always better. Larger shelters don’t produce better outcomes.

There are many things that make large shelters less effective. One basic problem is the internal environment: everyone — whether they suffer from substance use or mental illness, whether they are transgender or gay, whether they are young or old or infirm — is packed into the same gymnasium-sized room to sleep side-by-side.

There is hardly any privacy, and hardly any dignity. If anything, there is greater temptation to substance use or sex work.

And for drug dealers and criminals who prey on the homeless, a single, big-box shelter means a single target for their illicit affairs.

Larger shelters can also create more strain for staff: with so many people with so many different needs seeking help in a single location, social workers, mental health professionals and medical caregivers are often stretched thin.

We know what the right solution is: multiple, smaller shelters.

Last year, I joined Homeless Voices for Justice and many others to ask the City of Portland to build multiple, smaller, more targeted shelters across the city.

The “scattered site” model has many advantages over the “mega-shelter” model:

  • Each shelter could be tailored to the unique needs of a different demographic (e.g. people with substance use issues, seniors, women, LGBTQ persons, etc.).
  • Each shelter would be smaller (30–80 beds instead of 200) so could blend more easily into their neighborhoods.
  • Multiple scattered shelters would be less of a target for drug dealers and criminals who prey on the needy than a single, centralized shelter.

Would it cost more money? Yes. But we’re talking about people’s lives here — both the lives of the homeless who are accessing these facilities, and the lives of the residents near the facilities.

Portland actually has a few such targeted shelters already, like the Preble Street Teen Shelter in Bayside or the Milestone Shelter on India Street for folks with substance use issues.

These shelters have proven to be highly effective, but they do not have the resources nor the capacity to adequately tackle homelessness on their own. The City of Portland has an opportunity to partner with these existing providers to augment their efforts with new shelter facilities.

New York City and other cities have already moved to the scattered site model. Portland should follow this best practice.

We should not repeat the mistake we made in Bayside by concentrating services in a single neighborhood, even if those services will be in a shiny new building.

We should not choose the least-effective option — the “mega-shelter” — because it has the lowest monetary cost. That will only perpetuate problems.

A failure to communicate

Throughout this process, the City of Portland has taken the wrong approach to communicating with the public.

Instead of creating opportunities for dialog with residents, stakeholders, experts and homeless folks, the City has treated this proposal as a fait-accompli that it must “sell” to the public.

For example, no one in Nason’s Corner even knew that the Barron Center site was being considered until the City announced that it would be recommended in June 2018. Residents were rightfully upset that there had not been any kind of public discussion about proposed sites.

There should have been discussions with the Nason’s Corner neighborhood — and every neighborhood under consideration — long before any site was selected.

Furthermore, I have spoken with a few healthcare providers in Portland who regularly work with homeless folks: they too have concerns and reservations about the “mega-shelter” proposal, but they are afraid to say anything publicly because they fear they will “lose their seat at the table.”

In other words, they fear that the City will punish them for speaking their mind.

This is not the way our city government should be conducting a public discussion about such an important issue. Professionals and experts should feel free to share their perspectives, even if they don’t agree with City Hall.

Mistakes have been made, but it’s not too late to change course

Whatever we decide to build, we will have to live with it for at least a generation. That’s why it’s so critical that we do it the right way.

That means multiple, smaller shelters — not a “mega-shelter.”

More information, and how to get involved

The City Council will be discussing the shelter proposal throughout September. Make your voice heard by calling and emailing the councilors, or by speaking at public comment at council meetings at 6pm.

Some residents of Nason’s Corner have compiled arguments opposing the proposed shelter at portlandshelters.org.

The Bayside Neighborhood Association has also compiled a wealth of information about the current Oxford Street Shelter and the proposed new shelter on their website.

The Nason’s Corner Neighborhood Association [Facebook] has been regularly sending out emails and posts with news and update.

Finally, sign up for email updates from District 1 Councilor Belinda Ray, chair of the Health & Human Services Committee, who has also shared a timetable of upcoming meeting dates and key votes.