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Portland City Officials Hold 'Listening Session' With Members Of City's Homeless Population

Fred Bever
Maine Public
The occupation of City Hall plaza has been going on for a week now, with as many as 60 people sleeping overnight in tents.

The Portland mayor and a pair of city councilors held a "listening session" Wednesday morning with dozens of the city's homeless population who have established an encampment on the steps of City Hall. The goal was to try to improve communication after a week-long impasse over protesters' demands.

Credit Fred Bever / Maine Public
Maine Public
Protester Jes Folaro, seated, and Mayor Kate Snyder, foreground, at Wednesday's "listening session"

The occupation of City Hall plaza has been going on for a week now, with as many as 60 people sleeping overnight in tents. When homeless protesters and advocates tried to bring their concerns to a special City Council meeting earlier this week, public comment was barred.

In an effort to remedy that lack of communication, city officials sat down in nearby Lincoln Park Wednesday morning for a "listening session" with protesters. Christan Sark was one of several who said they felt safer at the encampment than in city-run shelters.

"I've been homeless since the age of 15, and I'm still homeless. I live at the encampment. And this is actually the first time I've ever felt safe being homeless. because there's actually people that give a crap about us."

Sark asked why the meeting was held in the park instead of at the encampment. Mayor Kate Snyder explained that because many there are not wearing masks, she was concerned about exposing herself and her family to the coronavirus. That drew a rebuke from protester Courtney Priest.

"Why are we worried about masks for one particular person when there's 150 people that have been over there that can't get the help that they need? You're asking us to wear masks but we don't even have basic human needs met."

Mayor Snyder was joined by City Councilors Jill Duson and Spencer Thibodeau and by Fire Chief Keith Gautreau. They listened for almost two hours as people lacking shelter discussed their hardships, like raising children without a roof over their heads, toughing out addiction or mental health issues on the streets, rough treatment by law enforcement, and inadequate assistance from the city and state.

Scott Smith called it a tragedy that it took a high-profile occupation to get significant public attention.

"It's sad that our own government, which includes you, is ignoring everybody. This shouldn't have to happen, we shouldn't have to be tenting out to make a point."

One of the protest's organizers, Jes Falero, says the homeless group has several demands before they would consider breaking up the encampment: defunding law enforcement, boosting social services, establishing overdose prevention sites, decriminalizing sleeping outdoors and extending the state's current moratorium on evictions.

"I camp out because I know that this is the population that goes unseen and unheard. I know because I myself struggle with chronic homelessness. I know that even though people may say that they are listening, I know that they're not."

Falero and others say the councilors' overtures seemed in good faith.

Afterwards Snyder told the media it was a fruitful meeting. She promised to advocate for an extension on the current moratorium on evictions, but otherwise did not commit to support any particular demand.

Asked what struck her as most compelling in the meeting, Snyder said it was hearing about the challenge of raising children while homeless, "For me as a Mom, hearing... sorry." Overcome with emotion, Snyder stepped away from the microphones, and Fire Chief Gautreau stepped in. "They were all compelling, and to sit there and just turn your mouth off and turn your ears on and listen was what needed to happen," Gautreau said.

The city officials shied away from estimating a timeline for when they would like to see the encampment break up. Both sides did agree to meet again, but for public safety reasons, City Hall remains closed.

A Columbia University graduate, Fred began his journalism career as a print reporter in Vermont, then came to Maine Public in 2001 as its political reporter, as well as serving as a host for a variety of Maine Public Radio and Maine Public Television programs. Fred later went on to become news director for New England Public Radio in Western Massachusetts and worked as a freelancer for National Public Radio and a number of regional public radio stations, including WBUR in Boston and NHPR in New Hampshire.