South Portland places strict conditions on hotels with shelter guests

SOUTH PORTLAND — Hotels sheltering homeless individuals and families have agreed to operate under strict conditions meant to address continuing concerns over increased calls for police and other emergency services.

One condition approved by the City Council on Tuesday night requires hotel staff to check the welfare of shelter guests at least twice daily, each morning and afternoon, and to keep a log of room checks that can be inspected upon request.

Regular room checks had already been instituted at Days Inn, 461 Maine Mall Road, one of four hotels whose operating licenses were scrutinized by councilors. Welfare checks will also be required for guests receiving emergency shelter at Comfort Inn, 90 Maine Mall Road. Both are owned by New Gen Hospitality Management of South Portland.

Police Chief Daniel Ahern said the welfare checks may help save lives among 730 homeless individuals and people seeking asylum who remain in local hotels under contracts with the Maine State Housing Authority and other agencies.

“We were finding people were deceased in their rooms for more than two days because they hadn’t been checked,” Ahern told the council.

The council also imposed conditions on Howard Johnson, 675 Main St., also owned by New Gen, and Casco Bay Hotel, 80 John Roberts Road, owned by Northeast Group Holdings of Cape Elizabeth. The council voted 5-0 on conditions for each hotel, adjourning at 12:20 am Wednesday.

The conditions also prohibit the Days and Comfort inns from taking in additional guests under any contract as rooms occupied by shelter guests become vacant after Dec. 31, and they prohibit extending or entering into any housing contract with any agency or organization after Feb. 28, 2023.

If a shelter guest remains at the Days or Comfort inn after Feb. 28, other than those placed by the city of South Portland, the hotel will pay a fine three times greater than the average nightly room rate paid under contract for each day the guests remain at the hotel. That fine will not be less than $350 nor greater than $500 per guest per day.

City Manager Scott Morelli said the end-date conditions reflect New Gen’s desire to stop providing emergency shelter in early 2023, when Portland plans to open a $25 million, 208-bed homeless shelter and service center at 654 Riverside St., on the outskirts of that city. The facility is intended to replace the Oxford Street Shelter, which can serve 150 people.

“I’m very grateful people were taken in, (but) these hotels were not set up for that,” City Councilor Linda Cohen said in support of the conditions.

South Portland officials responded to complaints from residents and business owners at a time when affordable housing is scarce, staffing is short and costs are rising. Although the hotels were scheduled for public hearings to consider revoking their licenses, municipal staff members instead recommended conditions developed in collaboration with the hotel owners to meet their own business needs and to better support hotel guests, Ahern said.

All four hotels agreed to be staffed with a 24-hour private security service starting Aug. 17. They also agreed to re-program their phone systems so guests dial 8 to get an outside line instead of 9, thereby reducing the chances of dialing 911 by mistake.

All four hotels also agreed to display laminated information in each shelter guest’s room including contact phone numbers for non-emergency assistance and other resources, and to provide the city with a monthly list of emergency shelter guests and their sponsoring agency.

During a community meeting in February, New Gen owner Suresh Gali promised to stop operating the Comfort and Days inns as emergency shelters by the end of May in response to public safety concerns. Residents and business owners had described a variety of intoxicated and illegal behavior by indigent homeless individuals, including harassment, thefts, drug activity and assaults.

When the hotels’ operating licenses were renewed in April, the council imposed conditions requiring continuous and visible onsite security and an onsite services coordinator Monday through Friday to assist with housing, medical, food, transportation and other needs.

Since then, Gali has agreed to continue providing emergency shelter indefinitely at the Comfort Inn and Days Inn because state and local officials have yet to find alternative accommodations. About 280 individuals are being sheltered at the two hotels, city officials said.

Gali said Tuesday night that 70 asylum seekers are now among the individuals being sheltered at Days Inn and 54 couples who are seeking asylum are among the shelter guests at Comfort Inn.

City officials said Comfort Inn generated 277 calls for police, fire and ambulance services in the first half of 2022, compared to an average of 31 calls per year from 2017-19, which was before it began sheltering homeless individuals during the COVID-19 pandemic . Days Inn generated 150 emergency service calls from January through June this year, compared to an average of 79 calls per year, 2017-19.

Howard Johnson accommodates mostly asylum-seeking families, but its emergency calls remain high, city officials said. It generated 108 calls from January to June this year, compared to an average of 69 calls per year, 2017-19.

The newly renovated Casco Bay Hotel generated 46 emergency calls from January through June this year, compared to an average of 39 calls per year, 2017-19, city officials said. About 15 of its 125 rooms are currently occupied by shelter guests, the owner’s lawyer told the council.

While some residents spoke in favor of letting the hotels keep their licenses, others questioned why South Portland taxpayers should cover any costs associated with hotels that are providing emergency shelter at a cost of $240 per room per night.

“This could go on forever,” said Donald Ladd. “The taxpayers should not be paying the price for these establishments.”

Claude Rwaganje, a Westbrook city councilor and executive director of ProsperityME, was one of several social service agency representatives who spoke in support of the city’s efforts.

“Thank you to the city of South Portland for being a welcoming city,” he said.

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