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Portland to clear bridge encampment, other sites next week

As of 8:30 a.m. on Nov. 1, 2023, some people who had been living outside at the Marginal Way encampment in Portland had already left.
Nicole Ogrysko
Maine Public
As of 8:30 a.m. on Nov. 1, 2023, some people who had been living outside at the Marginal Way encampment in Portland had already left.

The city of Portland said it will clear its largest homeless encampment next Tuesday. And it will begin enforcing a no-camping policy on all other city property, as long as beds remain available at the municipal shelter.

Since more beds were added to the Homeless Services Center at the end of November, 111 people who had been living outside have taken a spot at the shelter, city officials said Friday. That includes 43 people who had been living at the Harbor View Memorial Park encampment under the Casco Bay Bridge.

But more than 100 beds remain open at the shelter.

City staff and nonprofit outreach workers had stepped up efforts within the last few weeks to work with unhoused people living at the Harbor View encampment. The goal, the city said earlier this month, was to relocate as many as 20 people a day from the encampment into the municipal shelter.

"We saw quick results at the beginning, which was promising, but things have plateaued," city manager Danielle West said Friday in a statement. "Given this fact, the increasing health and safety risks at encampments, winter weather, and the desire to avoid any additional fatalities, we made the decision in accordance with city ordinances to resolve the Harbor View and other city-wide encampments.”

But Donna Yellen, a social worker and vice president of strategic initiatives for the Portland-based non-profit Preble Street, disagrees that successful outreach work at the Harbor View encampment had idled.

Outreach workers, Yellen said, are actively working with about 30 people to resolve their challenges with entering the municipal shelter or to enroll them in a rapid rehousing program, detox bed or treatment center.

"People are waiting on some housing vouchers. They're waiting on applications. These few outreach workers are doing their best to be able to coordinate with services, with these individuals," she said. "And when they are all bulldozed away, we will lose valuable time trying to find them."

Yellen said those who remain at the encampment have more complex challenges than those who may have left the site for shelter or housing earlier this month. And with too few resources and staff she said more time needs to be dedicated to providing social services, mental health and substance use disorder treatment.

"Why would we disrupt the progress that's being made by not giving it time to work?" said Yellen, who added that Portland's encampment crisis response team, of which she is a member, was not consulted about the city's plans for next week.

The city said Friday that unsheltered people have cited a loss of autonomy as the most common reason for declining a bed at the Homeless Services Center. The curfew at the HSC has been extended to 11 p.m. in effort to address those concerns, city officials said.

“Every effort has and will continue to be made by city staff and community partners to provide indoor shelter to the unhoused in our community,” Mayor Mark Dion said in a statement. “We must, however, take affirmative steps to address the adverse public health and safety consequences presented by these encampments to unhoused individuals as well as upon neighbors and businesses who also experience demonstrable harm if these camps are left unchecked.”

At least one person who had been living outside in Portland died in a fire that destroyed his tent, another man was recently found dead in a tent at the Harbor View encampment. All told, there have been 12 deaths in campsites this year in Portland, city officials said Friday.

Two days after the planned clearing of encampments on Dec. 19, the city of Portland, Preble Street and homeless advocates are expected to host a vigil on Dec. 21, the longest night of the year, to remember unsheltered people who have lost their lives.