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'We're people too' — Unhoused Portland residents consider options as city postpones encampment sweep

The City of Portland on Thursday again postponed the removal of encampments at Harbor View Memorial Park and Douglass Street until next week, citing the weather.

For some unhoused residents living in those encampments this is the sixth time they will be moved out.

"I've experienced all six since last spring," said Bruce Cavallaro.

Cavallaro carefully tucks his friend's small dog Jax into his open jacket to shield him from the rain. A 45-year-old veteran with PTSD who struggles with panic attacks, Cavallaro has been at the Harbor View encampment since November. Before that he was at the Park and Ride campsite, at Bayside Park before that and behind Trader Joe's before that.

He says the constant upheaval and jeers from the public are upsetting.

"Not everybody here does drugs. I'm in recovery and several others are. When they drive by and throw things at us and shout obscenities at us, that's not nice. We're people too. What if it was you? Your husband, wife, daughter or son. We deserve the same respect as people who are housed," Cavallaro said.

Erica Mathies, Jax's owner, has her own story.

"It was during Covid, we lost our jobs and didn't have enough to pay rent and got evicted," she said.

Mathies, who is 24, says she dreams of becoming a kindergarten teacher or a veterinarian. But her aspirations are on hold right now as she considers her options before the city takes down the encampment next week.

Cavallaro says he has stayed at the Homeless Services Center before and believes the city is trying to be accommodating. He says while he's considering going back there, he doesn't want to leave his family of friends behind.

Portland Mayor Mark Dion says the city has a duty to protect those who are living outside at this time of year.

"If it's a choice between having anxiety in a group space or taunting death by exposure or fire or overdose in an unsupervised campsite, I think the choice is clear as far as the city's responsibility to ensure everyone's safety," he said.

Advocates for the unhoused say 45 people have died this year from illness, overdose and tent fires in the encampments.

Dion says the shelter has social workers, onsite medication treatment, transportation, a late curfew and now allows pets, all in an effort to draw the unhoused inside. Dion says the city is trying to meet unhoused residents where they are, but that the campers need to meet the city halfway.

Mathies says she is ready to do that.

"I don't like the sweeps," she said. "I think they're terrible."

As rain trickles down her cheeks, Mathies says it's time to pack up her things and go to the Homeless Services Center, since one major obstacle, her dog Jax, has been solved.

"So we just talked to them and they said I could bring him with me as long as he stays with me at all times which he does anyway," she said.

As of Thursday morning, 95 beds at the Homeless Services Center were open. Dion says he's hopeful that with time more unhoused residents will come inside, where their other problems can be addressed.

The new date for encampment removal is Tuesday, Jan. 2. Per city ordinance, camping on public property is prohibited.

The Maine Department of Transportation did clear an encampment of unhoused residents on Douglass Street in Portland on its property near Interstate 295 on Thursday.