[Hpn] Crowded city shelter forced to turn away some in need;Portland, Maine;10/4/01
Morgan W. Brown
Thu, 04 Oct 2001 23:10:40 -0400
Thursday, October 4, 2001
Portland Press Herald <http://www.portland.com>
Local News section
Crowded city shelter forced to turn away some in need
By staff reports,
For the first time since it opened 12 years ago, Portland's emergency
shelter on Oxford Street is so crowded it has turned away homeless people
with no place else to go.
The shelter overflowed twice in the last few weeks, and the situation could
soon get worse. There are dozens of people sleeping outdoors by choice who
may soon decide to come in out of the cold, officials say.
Staff photo by
Peter Murdock, manager at Oxford Street, kneels next to sleep mats at the
homeless shelter. Fire codes limit occupancy to 154 people, which includes
mats in the laundry room. Demand for the beds has met or exceeded capacity
six times in the past month, says Gerald Cayer of the city's Health and
Human Services Department.
The fact that some people have been forced to stay on the street is seen as
another sign of the continuing housing crisis and as a test of commitment in
a city that, since 1989, has virtually guaranteed a roof and a bed to anyone
City officials and advocates for the poor are searching for solutions — from
finding space for overflow beds to intensifying their search for vacant
rooms and apartments.
"This community has repeatedly, year after year, made a commitment that
nobody needs to sleep outside, and I think we're facing a big test of that
this coming cold season," said Mark Swann, director of the Preble Street
Resource Center and soup kitchen.
The Oxford Street Shelter is the city's primary shelter for adult men and
women. It opened in 1989, with an official capacity of 50 people. It was
repeatedly expanded as demand grew through the 1990s. It can now hold 154, a
number that seemed more than adequate only a few years ago.
Portland's homeless population has been growing rapidly for the past three
years as the prosperous economy and lack of apartment construction pushed
rents out of reach for poorer residents in southern Maine.
October is historically a peak time at the city's shelter because cool
nights bring more homeless people inside. This year, city officials said,
more migrant workers also have come through Portland's shelter on their way
to work in northern Maine picking blueberries, potatoes or apples.
Officials also said there has been an apparent increase in the number of
people who abuse alcohol or drugs on the city's streets. Intoxicated men are
sent to the Milestone Shelter, but that facility also has been full and has
been sending its overflow to Oxford Street.
In recent years, the Oxford Street Shelter switched from army-style cots to
floor mats, partly because they allow for more beds.
"The mats are pretty much one on top of the other," said Cliff Metzler, who
recently came to Oxford Street from a shelter in Brunswick.
"There are 150 people sleeping on the floor, side by side. Some of them are
sick. I had two hours' sleep last night," said Joan Redding.
The crowding adds to the depression and stress that can keep some homeless
people from working their way back to independence, Redding said. "If they
don't find some way to bring these people up, they're going to have 250
people" looking for beds, she said.
Dawn Hodgson worries that she won't find room at the shelter one of these
nights after work at Burger King. "The girls have two areas and they fill up
by 9:30," she said.
"It's a roof, you know, you can't knock it," said Delma Braley, who is on a
waiting list for housing and is anxious to leave the shelter. "I'm praying."
Fire codes limit shelter occupancy to 154 people, including the mats on the
floor of the laundry room. There is no more room to expand, officials said.
Demand for the beds has met or exceeded capacity six times in the past
month, said Gerald Cayer, director of Portland's Health and Human Services
On some of those nights, the staff made phone calls and found beds in some
of the smaller privately run shelters around the city that serve intoxicated
men, teen-agers and women. Those shelters also are crowded, however, and on
two of those nights, homeless adults were forced to leave the Oxford Street
Shelter with nowhere else to go. They either found someone to put them up
for the night or slept outside, Cayer said.
A committee of city officials and community leaders will meet Friday to find
"If we need to find a gym space or some extra space in some agency or a
church that can accommodate a few cots, then that has to happen," said
City officials are hoping to ease the crisis by using every empty bed at the
private shelters and by working harder to shrink the homeless population.
"It's all well and good to have an overflow plan, but it's not helping us
address the issue of homlessness," Cayer said.
Of the 151 people at the shelter on one recent night, 46 had part-time jobs,
eight had full-time jobs and 25 received benefits such as Social Security,
Last week, the city posted a notice that all shelter residents are required
to meet with a case manager to look for housing. "If you choose not to meet,
your stay at the shelter may be time limited," it says.
So far, the case managers have placed 18 people in some form of housing in
the region, officials said.
Given the lack of housing in Portland and surrounding communities, it is a
difficult solution. "When November and December come and the snow starts
flying, we don't want to have anyone sleeping outside," Cayer said. But he
added, "I honestly don't believe more cots is the answer."
Staff Writer John Richardson can be contacted at 791-6324 or at:
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Morgan W. Brown
Montpelier Vermont USA
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