A Portland City Council committee said Wednesday that the city needs to do a a better job of informing the public about the health programs it operates.
The issue surfaced Wednesday night during a committee review of several proposed department budgets, including the Portland Police and the Health and Human Services departments.
Both have come under increased scrutiny amid calls from the public to defund police budgets and allocate more financial resources toward health and human service programs. Activists want to increase investments in public health and social services to address the needs of Black people and vulnerable populations such as the homeless.
Demands to defund police in Portland initially came from Black Lives Matter Portland, but recently became a theme for the homeless protestors who set up an encampment at City Hall. In addition to asking for more services for mental illness and substance use at the expense of police, homeless protestors called for the legalization of camping in public as a means of decriminalizing homelessness and poverty.
Finance Committee members did not discuss defunding the Portland police at Wednesday night’s meeting. Instead, they defended city funding of health and human services, citing a broad range of initiatives and programs councilors said the public is not fully aware of.
Councilors said the city needs to do a better job of informing residents about those programs and how many people they serve. Finance Committee members mentioned the Oxford Street Shelter, the Portland Expo shelter, the Family Shelter, which are at 58 percent capacity, as examples.
“I think we can do a better job of telling the story about what Portland is doing,” Councilor Belinda Ray said. “Preble Street has done some really excellent public relations. I think the city would benefit in terms of community goodwill if we could tell the story of the services that the city provides.”
Preble Street recently closed its soup kitchen and campus to clients, a move that led to homeless encampments at City Hall and Deering Oaks. Some of those people were unaware that shelter space was available.
“It’s important that we redouble our efforts to get as much information as we can out to the public,” Councilor Justin Costa said.
Greater Portland Health is a federally qualified health center that opened in 2009 under the name Portland Community Health Center. GPH was originally operated by the city, but now operates as a nonprofit, according to its website. GPH says its mission is to ensure that members of the community have access to health services regardless of their ability to pay. GPH accepts MaineCare, Medicare and commercial insurance.
Portland Police Chief Frank Clark said there is funding in his budget for several non-uniformed positions such as a substance use liaison, a neighborhood prosecutor and a behavioral health clinician. Those employees support officers on calls involving substance abuse and mental health.
Councilor Jill Duson said that when she talks with people who want to defund the police, they want to know more about those types of jobs. At least one councilor said the city may want to consider expanding the number of behavioral health workers in the police department.
“We are open to looking at different models,” Clark said.
Committee members took no final action Wednesday night on any of the budget proposals, with their next meeting set for Sept. 2. At that meeting, the committee will hold a public hearing before making a recommendation. Their recommendation will be forwarded to the full council, which will hold a public hearing and final vote on the proposed budget Sept. 21.