South Portland scrutinizes hotels housing homeless individuals

SOUTH PORTLAND — Hotels sheltering homeless individuals and families will be back before the City Council on Tuesday to address continuing concerns about increased calls for police and other emergency services.

In the spotlight are several hundred homeless individuals and people seeking asylum who remain in local hotels under contracts with the Maine State Housing Authority, said City Manager Scott Morelli. The city is responding to complaints from residents and business owners at a time when affordable housing is scarce, staffing is short and costs are rising.

The council will review operating licenses that were renewed in April for Comfort Inn, Days Inn and Howard Johnson, which are owned by New Gen Hospitality Management of South Portland. Although the hotels are scheduled for public hearings to consider revoking their licenses, municipal staff members instead will recommend that the council impose certain conditions to help curb calls for service, Morelli said Friday.

New to the controversy is Casco Bay Hotel, a recently renovated property at 80 John Roberts Road, near the Maine Mall. Owned by Northeast Group Holdings, a limited liability company based in Cape Elizabeth, it has been accepting “domestic homeless clients” placed by social service agencies, Morelli said.

City staff are collaborating with the hotel owners to develop conditions and strategies to better support hotel guests, he said.

“The city believes it can reduce the call volumes and eliminate or reduce the types of calls that are most detrimental to the health and safety of guests and the public, both at the hotels and in the surrounding businesses and neighborhoods,” Morelli said in a notice posted on the city’s website.

The recommended conditions will be presented Tuesday night, Morelli said. Conditions imposed in April included providing continuous and visible onsite security and an onsite services coordinator Monday through Friday to assist with housing, medical, food, transportation and other needs.

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 indigenous homeless individuals, including harassment, thefts, drug activity and assaults.

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, Morelli said.

City officials said Comfort Inn, at 90 Maine Mall Road, generated 277 calls for police, fire and ambulance services in the first half of 2022, compared to an average of 31 calls per year 2017-2019, which was before it began sheltering homeless individuals during the COVID-19 pandemic. Days Inn, at 461 Maine Mall Road, generated 150 emergency service calls January through June this year, compared to an average of 79 calls per year 2017-2019.

The city is publicizing the public hearing on social media, which is a bit unusual for an individual council agenda item. The meeting starts at 6:30 pm in the council chamber and on Zoom.

“There’s a lot of interest in this issue among the public,” Morelli said. “What’s happening now is a lot different from what people were told would happen at the hearing in April. We want to make sure people are aware and understand what’s going on.”

No longer in the city’s crosshairs is Quality Inn & Suites, at 738 Main St., which is operated by New England Hospitality, a New Hampshire-based hotel group. Quality Inn is sheltering families and individuals who are seeking asylum, and emergency calls have diminished greatly as a result of hotel management, city officials said. The council’s agenda package for Tuesday’s meeting didn’t include Quality Inn’s emergency call data.

Howard Johnson, at 675 Main St., also accommodates mostly asylum seekers, 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 2017-2019.

Gali, head of New Gen, didn’t respond to a request for an interview.

Quality Inn and Howard Johnson have been housing about 198 families.

The number of homeless individuals being sheltered at Casco Bay Hotel is unclear. The hotel generated 46 emergency calls from January to July this year, compared to an average of 39 calls per year 2017-2019. The hotel’s owners and managers didn’t respond to requests to discuss the issues.

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