The South Portland City Council will be reviewing license renewals for four hotels that have been housing asylum seekers and people experiencing homelessness after the city said it noticed an increase in calls to police, fire and emergency services.
City officials offered few details Thursday on the nature of the calls that have been made and said more information will be provided when the council conducts the review and holds a public hearing April 19.
“Where this is an item that will be appearing on a City Council agenda, most governments do not like their elected officials to read details about an agenda item before it’s presented to them,” South Portland City Manager Scott Morelli said in an email.
“And especially since this is a situation where the councilors will be sitting as effectively a judge or jury, we need to be extra careful in what information is out in the ether about this matter, so as not to ‘taint’ the jury pool.”
The review and public hearing come as the city of Portland, which is using the South Portland hotels to accommodate an overflow of asylum seekers and people experiencing homelessness in need of housing, is continuing to see high numbers of people in need and officials there are concerned about how they will be able to continue to meet that need.
“We have been working with the city of South Portland since December, when they really started talking about the calls for service, and working with our providers,” said Portland Director of Health and Human Services Kristen Dow. “We’ve had many meetings to try and take care of this and to mitigate the issues they’re facing. … We’ve been actively working to try and resolve these issues.”
The hotels the South Portland council will be looking at for license renewals are the Quality Inn, Days Inn, Comfort Inn and Howard Johnson. The Days Inn and Comfort Inn together are housing about 280 people, primarily homeless individuals, while the Quality Inn and Howard Johnson are housing about 198 families.
South Portland City Clerk Emily Scully said Thursday that she recently made the decision to refer the licenses for the four hotels, which are up for renewal May 31, to the council due to an increase in calls to police, fire and emergency services that she said will be unsustainable for city staff over time.
“The number of calls have been really increased for some of these hotels,” Scully said. “The city manager’s office and city staff have been working with some of these lodging establishments experiencing these high levels of calls … and they’ve been informed the city would be referring hotel licensing to the council if the calls for service continued at these unacceptable and unsustainable numbers.”
Annual calls for service to police, fire and emergency medical services at hotels and motels in the city increased 198 percent from 2017 to 2021, according to data from the city. Between 2017 and 2019, the city averaged 1,025 calls per year at hotels and motels. In 2021, there were 3,049 calls.
BIG JUMP IN CALLS FOR SERVICE
At the Quality Inn, calls for service rose from an average of 63 calls per year from 2017-19 to 358 calls last year, a 468 percent increase. The Comfort Inn saw a 2,083 percent increase, from an average of 40 calls per year from 2017-19 to 873 calls last year.
Calls at the Days Inn increased 379 percent, from an average of 107 per year to 512 in 2021, and the Howard Johnson saw a 270 percent increase, from an average of 82 calls per year to 303 calls last year.
So far this year, the Quality Inn has had 34 calls for service, the Comfort Inn 79, the Days Inn 55 and Howard Johnson 31.
A person who answered the phone at the South Portland Police Department on Thursday said Chief Daniel Ahern was away at a conference, and Ahern did not respond to an email seeking information about calls for service at the hotels.
Fire Chief James Wilson said he had been asked by the city manager to refer questions on calls for service to the city clerk. Scully said she did not look at the nature of the calls – only the numbers – and that details around what may be driving the increase would be discussed when the council holds its public hearing.
Hotel licenses can normally be renewed through the clerk’s office without going through the council, though the clerk also has the ability to refer licenses to the council for review.
“Seeing how this has been ongoing for over a year and the city manager has been working with these hotels to reduce the calls for service, it’s at the point now where we’re following up on this process we told them we would be doing,” Scully said.
Three of the hotels – the Comfort Inn, Days Inn and Howard Johnson – are part of the New Gen Hospitality Management group. Suresh Gali, who leads the group, did not respond to a phone message or email Thursday.
The fourth hotel, Quality Inn, is owned by Cardinal Maine 7 LLC, a group with a mailing address in New Hampshire, according to South Portland property tax records. John Guertin, who is listed as the manager of the company in records filed with the New Hampshire Department of State, did not respond to phone messages or an email.
The decision to refer the license renewals to the council comes about a month after the city held a remote meeting with residents, business owners and others who were invited by city officials to address public safety concerns related to the hotels.
LICENSE REVIEW FOLLOWS MEETING
Many of the people staying in the hotels are asylum seeking families and several residents who spoke during the meeting said asylum seekers are welcome and are not raising concerns. Others, however, said they have encountered problems with people experiencing homelessness who are being housed at the Days Inn and Comfort Inn.
Gali said at the meeting that he planned to stop hosting indigent people experiencing homelessness at those two hotels after May 31 because of complaints he heard about a wide variety of problems affecting nearby businesses, their employees and their customers.
Morelli called the meeting in part because of increased calls for police, fire and emergency medical services to the hotels, though he also reported at the meeting that calls for service dropped in recent months.
“Although Jan. and Feb. 2022 numbers were trending better than the aggregate 2021 numbers, it was too early to tell if that was a seasonal anomaly and even if it wasn’t, the level of calls are still well above the pre-pandemic levels,” Morelli said in his email Thursday. “And those numbers also do not include calls for service to area businesses and neighborhoods resulting from hotel clients.”
Morelli said city councilors have been advised by their legal counsel that when acting in a “quasi-judicial capacity,” as they will be when the hotels come before them for re-licensing, they should not discuss the subject of the hearings with anyone, do any independent research or investigation into the subject or solicit additional outside information.
Three city councilors reached Thursday – Jocelyn Leighton, Kate Lewis and Misha Pride – said they had been advised not to comment on the licenses and calls for service. The remainder of the council, including Mayor Deqa Dhalac, did not respond to phone messages and emails.
The issue of the license renewals also comes as the city of Portland is continuing to see unprecedented numbers of people in need of housing. Portland is providing shelter to about 1,300 people per night using emergency housing funds that are currently being reimbursed by the state and federal government.
Over the course of about the last week and a half, the city has seen 55 families, representing 202 people, arrive in need of shelter. They’ve also been notified that an additional 24 families, or about 90 individuals, are on their way to the city.
Officials in Portland said they are worried what the review of the hotel licenses in South Portland might mean for their ability to continue placing people in temporary shelter, and noted that they haven’t heard concerns about calls for service in any of the other communities where hotels are being used.
LOOKING FOR SUPPORT
“With the current numbers, what we’ve really seen is there has been a regional response to addressing general assistance need, and even though Portland is the city coordinating all this, our hope is regional partners will help Portland,” Mayor Kate Snyder said. “We’re trying to enlist all sorts of support, whether it’s at the state level or regional.”
Dow said the city is expecting to start using additional hotels soon and is working with the state and service providers to figure out housing for when the Comfort Inn and Days Inn are no longer available.
She was surprised to hear about the increased calls for service and license hearings.
“It’s concerning,” Dow said. “I don’t want anyone staying in the hotels to be afraid to call 911. That could be a life-and-death situation. I hope if there is a medical issue and something is happening that 911 can be called. That is a safety concern. I want to make sure the staff and clients feel free to call 911 if there is an emergency of some sort.”
Both Dow and Interim City Manager Danielle West said the high number of people experiencing homelessness and asylum seekers Portland is continuing to see points to a need for additional funding and greater coordination across the state on the issue of homelessness and emergency shelter.
On Monday, West and Snyder wrote to the chairs of the Legislature’s appropriations committee asking for consideration of an increase to the state’s General Assistance reimbursement, funding for a resettlement coordination effort to be led by Catholic Charities or another community partner, and funding for Maine State Housing to acquire and operate a temporary housing facility so the city can move away from using hotel rooms.
“We want to make it clear that we need assistance and there are specific things we need to allow us to continue to do this work and house these individuals who are in such need right now,” West said. “We are hopeful that as the Legislature moves forward with working on the supplemental budget that some of our concerns and requests will be specifically addressed.”