The city has proposed specific sites where it might allow new homeless shelters to open, a move that would end the longstanding policy that concentrated services for the homeless in an oddly shaped swath of downtown.
The sites range from large stretches of industrial land on the border with Westbrook to a narrow strip off Washington Avenue in one the the city’s hottest neighborhoods. The more than 20 lots being considered are zoned for industrial and commercial use. None are residential.
For months, city leaders have been considering changes to the zoning code that limits shelters to an area on the peninsula that City Manager Jon Jennings said reminds him of the “old days of gerrymandering congressional districts.” And now the City Council is gearing up for what is sure to be a long and contentious public debate over exactly where a new city shelter should be permitted.
“Our shelter staff does exemplary work, but they’ve had to operate out of a substandard facility for too long,” said Councilor Belinda Ray, who heads the committee and whose district includes most of the zone where shelters are now allowed.
Over the last 15 years, as privately run shelters have closed, services for the city’s homeless have become even more concentrated into a few blocks in Bayside.
Jeff Levine, the city’s head planner, said that “proximity to public transport would be really important” in selecting an area where a new shelter might be built and admitted that transit is lacking in several of the more far-flung lots being proposed.
But the ultimate selection of where to permit shelters will depend on public input, the needs of the homeless, and the will of the City Council.
Even with a zoning change, any new shelter would still need to meet a number of conditions, which the city is still writing, Levine said.
“It doesn’t mean someone can just open up a shelter,” Levine said.
The Health and Human Services Committee will hold public meetings on the issue on Jan. 10 and Jan. 24.