FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
South Portland Allows Establishment of Homeless Shelters and Sets Date for
Hotels’ Return to Legal Operations
SOUTH PORTLAND, Maine – Today, the City of South Portland announced it is putting in place long-term solutions to assist people experiencing homelessness within our City. Two ordinances, in effect as of today (April 10), allow the establishment of homeless shelters in the City, creating opportunities for organizations to provide shelter to unhoused people in South Portland. The City is also taking action to ensure that hotels that have been operating as de facto homeless shelters return to their legal operations as lodging establishments—a measure that spares South Portland residents a property tax increase of up to 20% or more.
The new ordinances allowing shelters are timely. The federal government plans to end its COVID-19 emergency declaration on May 11, 2023. The onset of the emergency in 2020 is what prompted social service agencies and neighboring communities to place people experiencing homelessness (both domestic unhoused and asylum seekers) into several South Portland hotels. State and Federal funding that has supported these hotel stays expires on April 30 and May 11, respectively. South Portland’s action to allow the establishment of shelters in the City comes just as the COVID-19 emergency measures come to a close.
The new ordinances allow shelters for up to eight people in numerous locations within the City, while those with a capacity greater than eight will only be permitted in certain zoning districts. They also require shelters to adhere to health and safety standards and provide support and services to meet the needs of the people they serve. These important health and safety standards do not exist under the current ordinances relating to lodging establishments, which is part of the reason why they are not suitable to serve as shelters.
“For the first time there is a pathway to creating safe, legal homeless shelters in South Portland,” said City Manager Scott Morelli. “The need for this is clear, and we look forward to working with entities that may be interested in establishing a shelter in the City.”
The City of South Portland does not intend to establish or operate a homeless shelter. The City is also not aware of current plans by outside organizations to open a shelter.
Also effective immediately, the City will resume enforcing its ordinance on lodging establishments to assist them in their return to permitted operations and discontinuance of their shelter activities. The City has informed hotels that they can no longer accept new unhoused clientele, and that any existing unhoused clients must have found other housing arrangements by June 30, 2023. The City purposefully chose this longer deadline to allow children in its school system to finish their school year without disruption and to allow for an orderly transition. The City made hotels aware of this June deadline several months ago to allow them ample time to make decisions and arrangements to assist their guests in making other housing arrangements, and that transition is already successfully underway. A number of clients were recently moved from the Days Inn to the new Homeless Services Center in Portland, for example. Others are finding permanent housing with the assistance of area social service agencies. The City will work with hotels and social service agencies in finding permanent housing for those who remain in hotels. Approximately nine of the City’s 17 hotels are currently hosting a few hundred unhoused clients.
Calls for service for public safety personnel skyrocketed at hotels hosting unhoused clients, increasing from 766 per year on average pre-pandemic (2017-19), to 1,672 in 2020 (118%), 2,730 in 2021 (256%), and 1,954 in 2022 (155%). In the first three months of 2023, the monthly call average is up 61% over pre-pandemic levels. (These numbers do not include calls to residences or businesses in the vicinity of the hotels that are related to hotel clients). The vast majority of these calls were to provide services to domestic unhoused clients, some of whom have significant mental health needs. These numbers are expected to decline significantly after June 30 and reduce the strain placed on the City’s Police and Fire/EMS personnel.
The hotels’ return to legal operations also spares South Portland residents a 6% to 20% (or more) property tax increase that would have resulted from increased General Assistance (GA) costs to the City when state and federal funding for hotel stays run out over the next month. While South Portland will continue to provide GA to those who qualify and secure legal housing within our community, the City will not provide GA funding for new stays at lodging establishments, as it would be contributing to a prohibited activity. Although the City anticipates spending less next fiscal year (July 1, 2023 – June 30, 2024) on GA than it will this year, the GA budget is still up 244% over fiscal year 2022 and 407% over fiscal year 2019. In short, the City remains committed to assisting those in need.
In addition, this past year the City of South Portland allocated $2.7 million of its ARPA funds to seven different entities for programs that help address homelessness and issues related to homelessness. Those funded include the Opportunity Alliance ($814,000), Preble Street ($500,000), Greater Portland Health ($288,000), Boys & Girls Club of Southern Maine ($369,000), the City of Portland ($229,000), and Greater Portland Family Promise ($200,000). It also included $300,000 allocated toward South Portland’s own Affordable Housing Fund.
The City continues to advocate for measures at the state and federal levels to address the unhoused crisis in Maine. Last month, the South Portland City Council sent a letter to its congressional delegation in support of a bill that would dramatically shorten the amount of time asylum seekers need to wait for work authorization. If passed, the bill has the potential to help many unhoused Mainers secure employment and housing sooner. The City also continues to call on Maine lawmakers to advance a coordinated solution to the unhoused crisis in the state, one which does not rely predominantly on the staff and taxpayers of primarily Portland and South Portland in the southern Maine region to shoulder the responsibility.
“Action at all levels of government is essential to address this monumental need,” said Morelli. “No community can go it alone.”