Scarborough’s Fix for Portland’s Homeless Crisis

Mystery Hotel to House 114 Homeless Individuals

Well, friends, we made it through 2020, somehow.  And the sun seems to be rising again every day in 2021.  So onward we march! Spring and vaccinations are right around the corner.

But enough piffle.  Let’s get right to the Scarborough news that you won’t see anywhere else – even though it was the lead story in the Leader.

Yes, if you saw last week’s Leader, you probably read about the Town dipping its toe into addressing the homeless crisis.  But if you were like us, you found that the questions raised by the article significantly outweighed the information provided.

Actually, the Town has done more than dip its toe in the water of this issue – we have plunged into a pool of unknown depth with wild abandon.

But first, a quick summary of the facts that have been made available to the public:

*   “A Scarborough hotel” is being converted into a temporary homeless shelter managed and staffed by the folks at Preble Street.

*   The facility will accommodate 73 homeless individuals in the “emergency wellness shelter” and 41 individuals in the “quarantine and isolation shelter” (for homeless individuals affected by COVID-19).

*   The project will be fully funded by MaineHousing, a State agency.

*   The emergency wellness shelter (73 individuals) is “anticipated to operate through April 30, 2021,” i.e., through the end of the winter season.

*   The quarantine and isolation shelter (41 individuals) “does not have a pre-determined end date, as it is in response to the current pandemic and an integral part of the public health response.”

There are two aspects of this story that are astounding:

First, the omission of a central fact to the story – which Scarborough hotel is being converted into the homeless shelter?  How is it possible that the hotel involved is not named in any of the publicly available material on the project?  And how can the Leader write a front-page story on the project and not name the hotel?  Can this omission be accidental?  Why was this key piece of information withheld?

The mystery hotel, it turns out, is the Marriott Fairfield Inn at 2 Cummings Road, at the intersection of Payne and Cummings Roads.  More on that in a minute.

 

Second, the lightning speed with which this decision was made.  During the discussion of the project at the Town Council meeting of January 20 [link here; start at 25:45], the Town Manager noted that he was first approached about the project “right before the first of the year, so a couple of weeks ago.”  (He did not disclose when he made the members of the Town Council aware of the potential project.)  And then — after a 25-minute public discussion at the January 20 Council meeting – the project was approved.

You are probably aware of the long and tortuous process that Portland has gone through over the past several years in coming up with appropriate locations for homeless shelters.  Those discussions have literally lasted for years.  Yet Scarborough can make a decision on its first homeless shelter in less than a month and after a 25-minute public discussion.  The contrast is striking.

Yes, we understand that the current winter homeless situation is an urgent public health crisis and that unnecessary delays could cost lives.  At the same time, the Town Council has a responsibility to thoroughly review proposals that impact the Town, and, in this case, the residents of the homeless shelter.  Did that review occur?

Did the Town Council:

  • formally or informally conduct a site visit at the Fairfield Inn?
  • review the “Certificate of Local Approval” that it authorized the Town Manager to sign to allow the project?
  • review the agreement between Preble Street and MaineHousing on the project?
  • review the lease between Preble Street or MaineHousing and the owner of the Fairfield Inn (Giri Portland Mall, Inc. of Quincy, MA)?
  • review the transportation plan for residents staying at the shelter?
  • consider the Town’s role in responding to homelessness at the site and in general after the “temporary” project ends?

If any of these steps were taken, they weren’t mentioned during the Council meeting.

Payne Road looking south — five lanes, no sidewalks.

Site visit

If anyone had visited the Fairfield Inn, he or she may well have had some serious questions about the suitability of the location for a homeless shelter.  On a recent site visit, your editor observed the following about the intersection of Payne and Cummings Roads where the hotel is located:

  • There is no “Walk” light at the intersection of Payne and Cummings Road.
  • There are no crosswalks at the intersection.
  • There are no sidewalks at the intersection!
The i
The intersection of Cummings and Payne Roads from the Fairfield Inn parking lot. Six lanes going into five lanes.
Payne Road at Cummings Road looking south. Note the lack of sidewalks and crosswalks.

This is a fairly complex, high volume intersection.  Payne Road is 5 lanes and Cummings Road is 6 lanes.  It is decidedly pedestrian unfriendly.  In fact, you take your life in your hands when trying to cross the intersection.

When one considers that some of the residents at the shelter may have multiple and complex barriers, including mental illness, substance use disorders, other disabilities or co-occurring diagnoses, one would have to be concerned that any resident trying to leave the property on foot and cross the street would be at an obvious risk of serious bodily harm or worse. 

Payne Road at Cummings Road looking south. No sidewalks going under the overpass.

In its haste to respond to an emergency, the Town Council may have overlooked a serious deficiency of the shelter site.  Although the deed is done, we hope the Council will re-look at this project and spend the appropriate amount of time and get meaningful public input on the future of this specific project and the Town’s overall response to the regional problem of homelessness.

The Old Cynic’s Corner

Let’s be clear, your editor fully supports the Town taking positive steps in dealing with the serious problem of homelessness in the region.  At the same time, he is strenuously opposed to the Town Council making rushed and not fully informed judgments.  Especially when those judgments can potentially have severe consequences for some of those impacted by the decision.

There seems to be a faulty thought process involved here.  If a proposal deals with a serious social ill, it gets a pass (or at least less detailed scrutiny) from the normal review and vetting process.  Because it’s a worthy cause, it is assumed to be a worthy proposal.  Obviously nobody wants to appear to be against helping the homeless or any of our neighbors in need.  

Any proposal to address homelessness will have a built-in emotional bias for approval.  In reality, proposals of this sort should get more careful analysis and review to compensate for that built-in bias for approval.  We shouldn’t equate a worthy cause with a worthy proposal.


That’s it for now, folks. 

It’s a busy time in old Scarborough: a new “downtown” being planned, the Town Charter being reviewed, the Comprehensive Plan being finalized and the budget process beginning.  No wonder the Town Council members seem harried… their plates are overflowing.  We’ll do our best to keep you informed!  So until next time,

Be neighborly,

TT Hannah

(nom de blog of Steve Hanly who is solely responsible for the above)

 

2 thoughts on “Scarborough’s Fix for Portland’s Homeless Crisis

  1. Site Author Post author

    Great question! MaineHousing has contracted with the hotel owner to provide rooms for the shelter (although we don’t know for how long). As long as the ownership of the hotel doesn’t change, it should stay on the tax rolls. This was confirmed by the Town Manager.

    But if the hotel were at some point sold to a non-profit — for use as a homeless shelter, say — then presumably the property would no longer pay real estate taxes to the Town. [Disclaimer: I am not a tax expert.]

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