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State clears Portland homeless encampment, as unhoused residents say they have no where to go

Social services volunteers help unhoused residents living at the corner of Deering Oaks Park and an I-295 off-ramp in Portland pack up tents, bags and small furniture on Aug. 31, 2023.
Nicole Ogrysko
Maine Public
Social services volunteers help unhoused residents living at the corner of Deering Oaks Park and an I-295 off-ramp in Portland pack up tents, bags and small furniture on Aug. 31, 2023.

The location was different, but for unhoused residents and volunteers packing up tents, bags and even small furniture on Thursday morning, the scene felt familiar. State workers with the Maine Department of Transportation picked up trash around the tents pitched in a shaded corner of Deering Oaks park near an I-295 off ramp.

A bulldozer carried away debris, while state troopers looked on. Volunteers loaded up their cars with the residents' belongings, with offers to drive them to their next destination.

Cory Blake remembers a few months ago when he was among just a handful of people living there. The number of tents has grown in recent weeks. Blake said he's been homeless off and on for 24 years, and counts at least five times that state or city workers have broken up one of his campsites.

"I keep asking why," he said. "And I ain't never got an answer yet."

Paul Merrill, a spokesperson for the Maine Department of Transportation, said in a statement that the encampment near I-295 was removed because the location poses "an immediate risk to the safety of the unhoused people and to the traveling public."

An unhoused resident named Wendall, who asked that his last name not be used, said a state trooper and DOT worker came by Wednesday and told him that he had 24 hours to leave the site. He says he wishes there had been more advanced notice from state officials that this site would be cleared.

"They should have had more of a plan, logistics should have been better, and resources," he said.

Donna Yellen, vice president of strategic initiatives for Preble Street, said the non-profit learned about the planned removal the day before from their clients living near Deering Oaks.

"People did not have places to go," she said. "It was a real surprise to us."

Wendall said he suffers from substance use disorder. He was in recovery, relapsed and moved from the Lewiston area to Portland. Many of the others who have been living nearby suffer from mental illness, addiction and PTSD, he said.

"A lot of them choose to be out here, but it's not really a choice that they're making. It's a choice that their addiction is making for them," he said.

A lack of mental health and substance use disorder resources is one of several reasons why Preble Street's Yellen wishes both the state and city to take a measured approach to Portland's homelessness crisis.

"To work with individuals who might have really complex issues, including medical issues, to get them into an apartment, takes a long time," she said.

Yellen sits on the city's encampment crisis response team, which is made up of Portland officials and other social services providers. The group has spent the summer gathering information about Portland's unhoused residents, locating shelter beds and housing options and trying to match those spots with people willing to take them.

They've started with the encampment along the Fore River Parkway Trail. City spokesperson Jessica Grondin said 11 people from that encampment have accepted a bed at the Homeless Services Center, and four others have moved into other housing or shelter options. About 50 others are still there, she said Thursday morning.

"We're really hoping in this last week that our outreach workers and our community partners can increase the number of folks who might want to take advantage of a shelter bed," she said.

The goal may be unrealistic, Yellen said, because there aren't enough case managers to help navigate unhoused individuals. And because many of those living near Deering Oaks moved to other city encampments, including the Fore River site, there are likely more people in need of help.

"There are not 50 shelter beds available in the city right now," Yellen said. "That's why we need the time to do this."

Grondin acknowledged that some people will choose to stay outside. The city, she said, will move forward its plan to close the Fore River encampment on Sept. 6.

"We need to be able to apply this model to other encampments in the city, especially before winter weather arrives," Grondin said. "Given that timeline we really need to be able to wrap up the work at Fore River and focus on other encampments."

The state-owned park-and-ride lot on Marginal Way will be the next focus of the encampment crisis response team. Maine DOT workers placed barriers and fencing to divide the parking lot from the encampment earlier this month. The lot is now the next destination for Cory Blake as well.

As for Wendall, he said he's also moving to a new campsite. But in two weeks, he said he's moving to a rooming house through an arrangement through the non-profit Amistad.

"I'm ready for it, I'm grateful for it actually," he said. "I'm grateful for structure. I think I need that."

According to a city dashboard, there were 216 tents located around Portland as of Thursday evening.