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Advocates for unhoused in Portland hold vigil, call on City Council to halt anti-camping laws

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Advocates for unhoused in Portland hold vigil, call on City Council to halt anti-camping laws

Nov 14, 2023 | 4:20 am ET
By AnnMarie Hilton
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Advocates for unhoused in Portland hold vigil, call on City Council to halt anti-camping laws
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"Okay, get rid of encampments...when we provide PERMANENT HOMES," read a sign at a Nov. 13 vigil at Portland City Hall. (AnnMarie Hilton/Maine Morning Star)

Randy Beard has lived in Portland for his whole life, and for 30 of those years, he was homeless and using substances. He still calls Portland home, and has been sober and housed for the last four and a half years. 

“If I was swept, I would have been dead,” he said to a crowd of about 50 people on a brisk Monday evening outside City Hall. 

Advocates for unhoused in Portland hold vigil, call on City Council to halt anti-camping laws
Advocates for the unhoused and critics of recent encampment sweeps held a vigil at Portland City Hall on Monday. (AnnMarie Hilton/Maine Morning Star)

Advocates for the unhoused community were there holding a candle-lit vigil to honor residents who were harmed as a result of encampment sweeps. They also urged the City Council to temporarily amend city code to stop the enforcement of anti-camping and anti-loitering laws. 

Organizers did not provide specific information about any individual who may have been injured as a consequence of the recent sweeps, but the ACLU of Maine and other advocates have described them as a dangerous and unnecessary use of resources. Often people forced to leave during sweeps relocate farther from resources and support systems. 

“I have a lot of grief about it,” said Julia Hazel, a Portland resident who attended the vigil and wants to see the city put more energy into finding permanent housing solutions.

The temporary amendment to stop sweeps and the enforcement of anti-camping laws was part of the council’s agenda for a special meeting Monday night. However, it wasn’t up for a vote. The vigil organizers encouraged attendees to write letters or consider giving public comment at the next council meeting about the order.

The council did vote to declare a limited state of emergency so the city temporarily expand bed capacity at the Homeless Services Center by 50 beds. The expansion order will last until Feb. 5.

‘Real Mainers’ don’t sweep

Portland has swept multiple encampments this year as more than 200 tents popped up across the city between February and the end of October. 

ACLU of Maine says encampment sweeps may be unconstitutional. Data shows they may not even work

An encampment off Marginal Way was cleared at the beginning of the month after the ACLU of Maine demanded Portland cancel the sweep claiming it violates the constitutional rights of unhoused residents, according to a 10-page letter sent to the city manager and commissioner of the Maine Department of Transportation.

Ultimately, the city moved forward with it. According to the city’s tent tracker, nearly 100 tents were removed during the sweep, bringing the total in the city down to about 180. In the weeks since, the number has climbed back to more than 200. 

With thousands of people unhoused across Maine and many of them in Portland, homelessness and affordability emerged as key issues in the recent mayoral race. Fault lines among candidates emerged last month when the Portland City Council rejected an emergency order for the second time to expand shelter capacity. Mayor-elect Mark Dion, a councilor at the time, voted against the proposal. 

Portland isn’t alone in its homelessness crisis or use of sweeps.

In Bangor, officials placed signs on trees near the city’s largest encampment informing residents they would need to vacate by Oct. 20 or be considered criminally trespassing.

“Be what real Mainers are: A loving and caring community,” Beard said, lamenting the friends and neighbors he’s lost to substance use and homelessness.

Editor’s note: This story was updated to include details about the City Council meeting.