The South Portland City Council on Tuesday unanimously imposed new conditions on four hotels if they want to continue providing temporary shelter to unhoused people and asylum-seeking families.
The conditions include an early 2023 cutoff date for accepting new shelter clients and twice-a-day room checks.
Comfort Inn, Days Inn, Howard Johnson and Casco Bay Hotel have agreed to the new rules, which were developed with assistance from the city of Portland and Preble Street.
The four hotels, which are being paid by Portland and social service agencies to shelter hundreds of people during the pandemic, have been the source of a soaring number of emergency service calls this year and mounting complaints by nearby residents and businesses.
“This substantial increase in complaints has resulted in an unsustainable burden on our police officers,” Police Chief Daniel Ahern said at Tuesday’s meeting. “The city of South Portland must find new solutions that work for its residents, its businesses, its public safety and social services, as well as for the homeless and those seeking asylum.”
Days Inn and Comfort Inn are prohibited from accepting additional unhoused clients as rooms become vacant starting in January 2023. They also are barred from contracting with housing agencies or organizations after Feb. 28. Hotels will be fined for acting as an emergency shelter for any person not placed there by the city of South Portland.
“Most individuals were placed by the city of Portland, Maine Housing and area nonprofit agencies,” Ahern said. “In recent months, the city of South Portland has become responsible for placing some individuals.”
New Gen Hospitality, which owns Days Inn, Comfort Inn and Howard Johnson, already had those cutoff dates in mind, City Manager Scott Morelli said. New Gen plans to stop providing emergency shelter in early 2023 at the same time Portland plans to open a 208-bed homeless shelter.
The hotels must also provide 24/7 on-site security and contact information for non-emergency services in each room. They must give the city a monthly list of occupants and what city or organization placed them there. The hotels also agreed to reprogram phone systems so guests must dial 8 for an outside call as opposed to 9; Ahern said that change could reduce the number of accidental 911 calls.
“I’m not as familiar as some on how shelters run, but I believe those are part of the conditions of a shelter,” Ahern said. “As these hotels start to operate as shelters, we’re trying to kind of marry those best practices from the shelters to the hotels.”
The twice-per-day room checks may help save lives, Ahern said.
“We were finding that people were deceased in their rooms for more than two days because they had not been checked on,” the police chief said. “This will alleviate that and stop that from happening, and possibly be able to help us save a life.”
The serious nature of emergency safety calls is also of concern, Ahern said, which includes assaults, suicides, domestic violence and overdoses.
The Comfort Inn has been the source of 277 emergency service calls through June of this year, compared to an average of just 31 per year from 2017 to 2019. Days Inn has seen 150 calls in the first half of the year and averaged 79 per year from 2017 to 2019. According to city officials, the two hotels are currently sheltering 280 people. While they started out sheltering those who couldn’t find room at Portland’s homeless shelters, New Gen owner Suresh Gali on Tuesday said there are now 70 asylum-seekers being sheltered at the Days Inn and 54 asylum-seeking couples at Comfort Inn.
Howard Johnson has seen 108 calls from January to June, compared to 69 on average from 2017 to 2019, and Casco Bay Hotel has seen 46 emergency services calls in 2022, compared to an average of 39 per year from 2017 to 2019. Howard Johnson is mainly housing asylum-seeking families while Casco Bay Hotel claims that only 15 of its 125 rooms are being used as a homeless shelter.
While they are hopeful that the conditions will stem the number of emergency calls at the hotels, councilors recognized that more permanent measures may be needed in the future.
“We can work with social workers, we can create different policies, we can have alternative numbers to call; not the police department, not the fire (department),” said Councilor Jocelyn Leighton on Tuesday. “Who are the community leaders we can lean on and go to instead of leaning so heavily on departments that are not equipped to deal with all of the layers of issues that are happening at the hotels right now?”
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