SOUTH PORTLAND — The City Manager recommended Tuesday evening that City Council renew the operating licenses of four hotels that have housed hundreds of asylum seekers and homeless Mainers since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.
City Manager Scott Morelli urged councilors to renew the licenses of the Comfort Inn, Days Inn, Howard Johnson and Quality Inn with conditions intended to ensure they continue to work to reduce calls to police and others emergency services in the coming months.
As of press time, the board had renewed two of the four operating licenses with some of the recommended terms, and it appeared to be on track to take a similar approach with the remaining licenses.
“We want hotels to keep operating,” Morelli said. “The problem is the number of calls.”
Under the recommended conditions, if emergency calls have not decreased to a “satisfactory” level by September 1, or if calls increase within 90 days, hotel owners should return to council for a hearing of suspension/revocation. They should also provide translation and other on-site assistance on weekdays if they are hosting asylum seekers, and 24-hour security if they are hosting other homeless Mainers.
The board voted 5-0 to renew the Comfort Inn and Days Inn licenses and imposed conditions requiring the hotel owner to provide guest support and security. But advisers have dismissed conditions on the number of emergency calls as vague and unrealistic amid a housing shortage and an immigration crisis.
“We should not put any conditions on these licenses,” Mayor Deqa Dhalac said.
The City of Portland uses the four hotels to house overflows from its Oxford Street and Family shelters, including asylum seekers and homeless people. Days Inn and Comfort Inn housed about 280 people, mostly homeless people, while Quality Inn and Howard Johnson housed about 198 families.
At the Comfort Inn, calls to police, firefighters and other emergency services have gone from an average of 2.6 calls per month before the COVID-19 pandemic began in March 2020 to an average of 45 .5 calls a month last year, Morelli said Tuesday night. .
Emergency service calls during the same period also increased at the Days Inn, from 6.6 to 32.3 per month; Quality Inn, from 4.4 to 17.2 per month; and Howard Johnson, from 5.8 to 13.6 per month. Calls to the police department included wellness checks, robberies, assaults, domestic disputes, missing persons, drug and alcohol offenses and suicide threats.
All four hotels have “UNACCEPTABLE AND UNSUSTAINABLE level of service calls,” Morelli wrote in a March 3 letter to hotel owners. “This means your call volumes have at least doubled from pre-pandemic levels, are in double digits per month and are at or above 0.5 calls per day.”
The review of the four hotels comes as Portland continues to host large numbers of people in need and officials worry about how they will continue to meet that need. As of last week, Portland was using 12 hotels across six communities to house 1,594 asylum seekers and homeless Mainers.
Three of the hotels – Comfort Inn, Days Inn and Howard Johnson – are part of a local group, New Gen Hospitality Management. The fourth, Quality Inn, is operated by New England Hospitality, a New Hampshire-based hotel group.
The hotel licensing review follows a Feb. 28 Zoom meeting Morelli held with residents, business owners and others to address public safety issues related to hotels. Many participants attributed the problems to indigent homeless people rather than families seeking asylum.
During that meeting, New Gen Chief Suresh Gali said he planned to stop housing destitute homeless people at the Days Inn and Comfort Inn after a contract with MaineHousing expired on May 31. .
Paul Weinstein, New Gen’s attorney, urged advisers on Tuesday night to consider hotels’ past low service calls and recent efforts to deal with the increase. He said renewing hotel licenses with conditions would “unduly stigmatize these businesses”.
Police Chief Dan Ahern praised New Gen’s efforts so far, but stressed that his department could not continue to respond to a high number of calls. He said making hotel licenses conditional would help ensure future compliance.
“There has to be communication,” Ahern said. “It has to be a cooperative effort.”
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