PORTLAND — Beginning next week, the nonprofit social services provider Preble Street will begin scaling back hours at its busy day shelter, a move that worries some in the homeless community and in the surrounding Bayside neighborhood.
Preble Street says the decision is driven by financial pressures. It comes as neighbors say they are making hard-earned progress in efforts to reduce problems such as open substance use, indecent conduct and assaults that have increased as large numbers of people congregate outdoors when there are few other places to go.
Preble Street provides a variety of services aimed at meeting the basic needs of Portland’s homeless and low-income residents. Its day shelter at 5 Portland St. serves between 300 to 400 people a day, giving them a place to warm up on a cold day, make a phone call, take a shower, do a few loads of laundry, charge their phones or get basic necessities, such as clothing and toiletries.
The day shelter, or resource room, is currently open from 8 a.m. until 2:30 p.m. on most weekdays — it closes at 1 p.m. on Wednesdays — and from 8 a.m. to noon on Saturdays, according to the nonprofit’s website. Beginning Sept. 30, it will close at noon Monday through Friday, and it will not open at all weekends, said Donna Yellen, Preble Street’s deputy director. Case managers and outreach workers will still be on site until 4 p.m. to meet with clients, and Preble Street will have its soup kitchen open for three meals, seven days a week.
The decision to scale back the hours was made in response to rising costs and a steady decline in public funding, Yellen said. The new hours will save the nonprofit $100,000 a year in per diem staff, she said.
“At this point we have to look at what we can do most effectively and efficiently with limited dollars,” she said.
The news was concerning to a half dozen people who regularly use the day shelter and were asked about the change Thursday.
Kenneth “Kenny Wayne” Beek said he’s been coming to the day shelter for three years. The 48-year-old, who plays guitar downtown for tips, has been in and out of jail, but the day shelter is the one place he can rely on.
“It’s a safe zone,” Beek said. “You’re not as likely to get in trouble here as you are someplace else.”
A 52-year-old woman who would only give her first name, Donna, said she was worried, especially with the cold weather coming. She sat in the courtyard Thursday with all of her belongings — a small box of food she got from the Preble Street pantry, two small bags of clothes and a small bag for other loose items.
“What are we going to do when it rains or gets cold?” she said. “If we get wet or damp, we’re going to be stuck out here for a good two or three hours” until the soup kitchen opens.
The Preble Street Resource Center was started back in 1970s as an experiment by a college professor and his social work students, bringing low-barrier social services to Portland as a way to build trust and relationships with people who can use help getting basic needs. Over the years, it became known simply as Preble Street and it expanded into a $13 million nonprofit providing services such as shelters, soup kitchens and housing programs in Portland and throughout the state.
In 2016, the Resource Center, which includes the day shelter and others services such as caseworkers and food pantry, had a budget of $1.43 million — about $30,000 more than the previous year, according to the most recent tax documents available online.
To address financial issues, Yellen said an administrative decision was made to scale back its day shelter hours because the nearby city-owned Oxford Street Shelter expanded its hours last fall from overnight only to 24 hours a day. “People will still have safety and security at the Oxford Street Shelter,” she said.
City Manager Jon Jennings said the move by Preble Street will likely lead to increased numbers of people seeking day shelter at Oxford Street, as well as the Portland Public Library and other downtown areas. The city’s Oxford Street shelter currently serves about 100 people during the daytime and the fire department is determining what a safe daytime capacity should be, he said. The building has a maximum capacity of 154 people at night and routinely fills up and sends people to overflow spaces elsewhere in the city.
“There’s always a concern about our capacity to be able to deal with all of this, and that’s one of the reasons we have been looking at a different shelter model,” Jennings said, referring to the city’s plans to build a larger, modern 24-hour shelter or network of shelters. “There’s only so much the city can do, and that policy discussion about what the city can continue to provide for overall services will be something I’m sure the City Council will discuss.”
Matt Coffey, who spent eight years camping out in Portland and accessing showers and laundry at Preble Street before securing an apartment, said he doesn’t think the city shelter will be able to handle the demand.
“There are going to be people wandering around who would otherwise have a place to go,” said Coffey, who also is mounting his third City Council campaign. “It’s going to severely impact the community. These people depend on this place.”
Some Bayside residents are worried about what Preble Street’s decision could mean for their neighborhood.
Over the last year, they said, the expanded hours at the Oxford Street Shelter, addition of outdoor restrooms and lockers, as well as additional security and policing resources, have begun to tame the disorderly behavior that has plagued the neighborhood. Neighbors and police have said much of the problems are caused by drug dealers and others who come to the neighborhood to pray on the homeless people who gather there for services.
Bayside Neighborhood Association President Sarah Michniewicz, who lives near the city’s Oxford Street Shelter, said Preble Street’s decision is “very concerning” and could have a significant impact on the neighborhood by effectively forcing more people outside. The association has a board made up of residents but doesn’t have a formal membership count.
“This new whittling away of access to Preble Street’s resources will be hard on clients and almost certainly cause a return to higher levels of disorderly activity in Bayside,” Michniewicz said. “Choosing to address funding problems by severely curtailing access to a core program is surprising given their extensive experience and reputation for adept fundraising.”
Yellen could not point to any one funding cut in particular for causing the reduction in hours and did not provide any general financial information about how smaller cuts and increased costs have added up over the years.
“It is very difficult for nonprofits to support programs for individuals who don’t fit into a specific fundable category,” Yellen said. “The Resource Center is one of those programs.”
According to the recent tax filing available online, Preble Street brought in nearly $13 million in revenue in 2016, which is about $900,000 more than the previous year. About $1.44 million went to operating the Resource Center, which is slightly more than the $1.43 million in costs the previous year. Preble Street receives funding though a wide variety of public grant programs, as well as private funding sources.
In 2016, the nonprofit had $168,720 in remaining revenue after its expenses, but that followed a year in which it lost nearly $320,000.
Mayor Ethan Strimling said he asked Preble Street whether the city could help with funding to offset the reduction in hours, and is still waiting to hear back. And Jennings, the city manager, said that no one from the nonprofit asked for additional assistance to maintain current hours.
“Of course the city is stretched pretty thin already, so I’m not sure we could have done anything anyway on the financial side,” Jennings said.
Strimling said the situation highlights the need for the city to invest more money into affordable housing and other efforts to house the homeless. He said he will soon ask the council to borrow $7 million to help build affordable housing. The mayor also said the city should move forward with a new shelter plan, which he says should include multiple shelters on different sites.
“This is the continuing battle we have,” Strimling said. “Are we willing to invest the money it takes to make sure we provide the resources for people? Putting people on the streets is not the way to find them stable housing.”
However, the leaders of the Bayside Neighborhood Association believe the situation creates more urgency for city leaders to move forward with the city’s initial plan for a 200-bed shelter proposal on outer Brighton Avenue. Following opposition of residents in that neighborhood, councilors put off a vote on the proposal and will explore other locations and other service models — a move that some fear will only lead to delays.
“I hope this is a wakeup call to anyone following the new shelter proposal discussion,” said Stephanie Scherer, treasurer of the Bayside Neighborhood Association. “Basic human needs are not being met here in Bayside, and we cannot continue to delay making the hard decision around what to do next.”
Beginning next week, the nonprofit social services provider Preble Street Resource Center will begin scaling back hours at its day shelter — a move that residents in Bayside fear will undo hard-earned gains in bringing order to their community. (Ben McCanna/Portland Press Herald)
Matt Coffey, a former homeless man who is seeking a seat on the Portland City Council, stands outside Preble Street Resource Center on Thursday. Beginning next week, the nonprofit social services provider will begin scaling back hours at its day shelter. (Ben McCanna/Portland Press Herald)