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Portland clears largest homeless encampment after protesters attempt to stop it

After this story was first reported, the city of Portland shared an update about availability at the Homeless Services Center. Shelter staff assigned beds to a total of 17 people from the Harbor View encampment by the end of the Tuesday. A total of 51 beds were available at the shelter as of 7 p.m., according to a Portland city spokesperson.

The city of Portland cleared its largest homeless encampment Tuesday at the Harbor View Memorial Park under the Casco Bay Bridge.

City officials said because more shelter beds are available, camping throughout Portland is prohibited. But outreach workers argued that more time was needed to successfully help those living outside access some kind of housing.

And a few dozen people, including social workers, housing advocates and others, peacefully formed a line at one of the entrances on Commercial Street in an attempt to block city workers from entering the encampment. Some parked their cars in an emergency no-parking lane as a way to stop municipal equipment from entering.

Before 9 a.m., Portland Mayor Mark Dion had arrived to watch as the cars that had been ticketed earlier in the morning were towed.

"Our goal is to either slow down the process or stop the process," said homeless advocate Shay Dufour. "We're not letting anybody through. We're not letting them through."

Dufour says she and many of the those others arrived at 6 a.m. to protest the fifth removal of a major encampment in Portland within the last six months. Other smaller encampments have also been cleared throughout the city during that time.

But within a few hours, the familiar sounds of construction plows and equipment could be heard clearing away abandoned tents and other debris.

Patty Ordway has lived at the Harbor View encampment near the Casco Bay Bridge for several months. She's stayed at other Portland encampments over the past year and spent last winter living outside. And even though she's quickly picked up and moved whatever belongings she can carry several times, she said the experience of being displaced and needing to start over isn't easy.

"We can't manage," she said. "We can't even live our daily lives, because we're wondering if we're going to get kicked out of the next encampment. We can't settle down. We can't do nothing."

Patty Ordway, left, said she'd lived at the Harbor View encampment for several months. On Tuesday, volunteer Pam Adams, right, helped Ordway move her belongings as city workers cleared the encampment.
Ari Snider
Maine Public
Patty Ordway, left, said she'd lived at the Harbor View encampment for several months. On Tuesday, volunteer Pam Adams, right, helped Ordway move her belongings as city workers cleared the encampment.

Portland city officials began making plans to clear the encampment under the Casco Bay Bridge a few weeks ago, after seeing what they described as a leveling off of people accepting one of the new beds that had been made available at the Homeless Services Center. Social workers argued that more time was needed to help those with more complex substance use disorders and mental health challenges navigate housing or shelter.

"It fluctuates on a daily basis, but we've had anywhere from almost 100 to then 70 beds available," Portland city spokesperson Jessica Grondin said. "We've certainly, definitely seen people come inside."

As of Tuesday morning, there were 86 beds available at the Homeless Services Center, Grondin said. She expected more people to accept a shelter bed throughout the day. And she she said Portland has made a variety of changes to shelter policy in an attempt to alleviate concerns unhoused people have shared.

Curfew is extended. And Grondin said the HSC now has staff on site who can provide medication assisted treatment, as well as representatives from the Maine Department of Health and Human Services, to help connect residents with services.

"We've talked to a few people who have recently come inside and taken shelter, and they've been extremely pleased with what the Homeless Services Shelter is like," she said. "There's still a lot of misconceptions it's like our former shelter. And it's anything but."

But Patty Ordway said she won't go to the Homeless Services Center, not after a past experience at the family shelter in Portland.

"I will never go to a shelter here in Portland again. It was disgusting," she said. "The conditions were horrible. There were freaking cockroaches and bed bugs. My kid was getting eaten alive every night, and we ended up running away because of it. And that's why he got taken back by DHHS, cause I had no place to go with him."

It’s a common experience for unhoused people in Portland, Dufour said. She agrees the additional shelter beds and concerted outreach efforts inside the encampments have brought some inside, and she said she personally helped a few people from Harbor View access the shelter.

City workers clearing the encampment by the Casco Bay Bridge on Tuesday.
Ari Snider
Maine Public
City workers clearing the encampment by the Casco Bay Bridge on Tuesday.

But there are others who have lost trust in the city and municipal services, Dufour said, and the repeated encampment clearings haven't helped.

Because camping is prohibited in Portland as long shelter beds remain available, Dufour said she's heard that some people are considering whether they'll move out of the city.

"We've got people thinking about going to South Portland," she said. "We've got people going to probably be on the Falmouth line. We've got people that are probably go to other cities."

Dufour said she's most concerned about those who will leave Portland and potentially lose access to the outreach services that have been trying to help them, which are concentrated within the city.

After a few hours on Tuesday morning, protest organizers decided they had made a statement. It would likely be several more hours before city workers who were clearing the campsites would reach the demonstrators who planned to confront them, they said.

Organizers instead encouraged the participants to help unhoused residents pack and transport their belongings. They said Amistad and the First Parish Church in Portland were open to people who needed a space to figure out their next steps. The cash they had set aside to bail out those who might be arrested would be distributed to those who remained at the encampment.

There were no arrests, Grondin said.

As for Patty Ordway, she's thinking about going to a hotel with a friend for a few nights. But after that, she said she's not sure what's next.

"It's scary. You feel alone," she said. "I don't know where I'm going to go. I don't know what I'm going to do."

Updated: January 2, 2024 at 7:44 PM EST