Portland community, ACLU of Maine ask for compassion in dealing with homeless community
A Portland man told the City Council Tuesday evening that that he occasionally sleeps below the stairs at City Hall.
A sign outside the building that reads, “All are welcome” often catches his attention, he explained. But he questioned whether council members and city staff read the sign themselves.
He was among 35 people who spoke during the public comment period about a proposal to increase capacity by 150 beds at the Homeless Service Center (HSC), which sits on the outskirts of the city on Riverside Street.
City manager Danielle West said it’s a temporary solution to help get people shelter before winter, not solve the entirety of the crisis.
“We’re not trying to address and resolve the root causes of homelessness,” she said. “We’re trying to address a crisis situation I’ve seen accelerate significantly over the last four to five months.”
Speakers from the community included business owners, outreach volunteers and residents who are unhoused. Many of them spoke against encampment sweeps and pleaded for compassion while officials work on a solution to the growing homeless population in Portland. Before the meeting, advocates from the ACLU of Maine, unhoused residents and other community members protested at City Hall Plaza.
Heather Zimmerman, a legal fellow with the ACLU of Maine, said the proposed ordinance would continue to criminalize homelessness in the city.
In a news release earlier Tuesday, the ACLU of Maine argued that the increase in beds without additional staffing, resources or infrastructure would serve to “artificially inflate the number of ‘open’ shelter beds, giving the city and police another excuse to conduct dangerous sweeps as they pretend reasonable alternatives to camping are available.”
Zimmerman said she appreciates the city recognizing the urgent need for more shelter space, but that she’d rather see the Health and Human Services and Public Safety Committee — an elected body, rather than the city manager — propose a “compassionate and evidence-based” solution.
The proposal would cost just under $135,000 to add the additional beds at HSC. That doesn’t include additional showers or bathrooms.
No action was taken Tuesday. It was a workshop for council members to discuss the proposal and hear from residents.
In her opening remarks for the meeting, Mayor Kate Snyder said there’s a lack of consensus on the definition of the problem. For some, the problem is people living in tents, she said, but for others, the problem may be that people living in tents aren’t having their basic needs met.
She hoped the workshop would give “a better sense of what the problem statement is for our community.”
One resident who is homeless said HSC doesn’t feel like home because of curfews and other rules that feel restrictive. He also said he feels the city isn’t providing sufficient resources for the homeless community.
“We just need help. We just need love. That’s it,” he said.
Homelessness in Portland grows
Homelessness in Portland and other cities in Maine has gotten more pronounced since the pandemic. The reasons are varied and intertwined: Spiking housing costs, unemployment, limited shelter space, as well as insufficient mental health, substance use and housing services.
In recent months, the city has gotten more aggressive in its response to unhoused residents. In May, after initially postponing the sweep, the city cleared dozens of tents that were set up along the Bayside Trail behind Trader Joe’s. More recently, the Maine Department of Transportation brought in a bulldozer to oust residents of an encampment out of Deering Oaks Park and the city cleared the encampment along the Fore River Bike Trail.
The city has paired the sweeps with the deployment of the Encampment Crisis Response Team (ECRT), which is focused on connecting individuals with beds and other services.
Homelessness was a key topic at the Portland mayoral debate last week, according to reporting from the Portland Press Herald. The five candidates had varied views on how to best address the situation but agreed that something more needs to be done.
The state’s annual Point in Time Count, conducted by the Maine Housing authority in January, found 4,258 unsheltered people in Maine, up from 1,297 in 2020 (though the new number includes people in transitional housing and staying in hotels funded by General Assistance, which were not previously counted).
And according to the City’s Unhoused Community Dashboard, there are currently 245 tents throughout Portland, the highest concentration located by the Park & Ride on Marginal Way. According to the latest update from the ECRT, the city is now focusing its resources ahead of a planned clearing.