For the past few weeks, as the places where homeless people often receive services have been closed, some have been spending their days — and in some cases, their nights — at Portland’s Deering Oaks Park. Preble Street in Portland has had to close its day center as part of its effort to curb the spread of COVID-19 and had been providing meals for people at several locations, including Deering Oaks.
But on Friday, the city's Parks Department issued the nonprofit agency a cease and desist order. In a public statement Monday, the city said it had received a significant increase in complaints about safety and sanitation in Deering Oaks — and that it believed that Preble Street's distribution of meals was the cause.
Preble Street Executive Director Mark Swann told Maine Public’s Ed Morin that he is seeing more people than ever sleeping outdoors in Portland, and that the organization started serving meals at Deering Oaks because people were already congregating there. And he says the city's claim that it has plenty of room left in its shelters — while true — does not necessarily mean that people are going to stop sleeping outdoors.
Ed note: interview has been edited for length and clarity
Swann: There are an awful lot of people who aren't able to access those shelters because of their mental illness, their untreated substance use disorder. There are some shelter beds, but a lot of them are kind of inaccessible to people.
And in any event, you know, the statement you read, or the statement I've read from the city, essentially, placing the blame for people being in the park on our efforts to do outreach and provide food there. I think that flies in the face of common sense and reality as well. And I say that because people have been sleeping out in Deering Oaks Park for weeks now. And we just started doing our outreach work there and our food distribution last Monday. And the other you know, frankly, very obvious proof right now today is that there are 40 or 50 people there right now, and we're not providing food there. I don't know, I'm not sure that it's very productive to be doing finger-pointing.
I think, really, what we need to do is figure out the best way to collectively meet the needs here and take care of some very, very vulnerable people during a pandemic. So that's what we're hoping to do. I mean, there are a lot of good things we could be talking about. And it's, frankly, it's really disappointing. And I was quite surprised to get the cease and desist order. I don't think that's really helping anybody at this point.
Morin: So to meet these immediate needs, what do you see has to be done in the short term?
Well, in the short term, I think we absolutely need to be doing a robust and strong and professional outreach effort. All the attention has been about the food part of this, but really, that's only one piece. We have professional social workers. We are organizing to get medical care as part of this as well, and really to be at the community where they're at, providing social work services, health care, as well as food. Just in the short time we've been doing this — and remember, it's just been a week — we've helped respond to an overdose, we've helped four or five people get up to Maine Medical Center with serious medical issues. We've helped two women in domestic violence situations get into domestic violence shelters and programs. We've helped people extend their housing vouchers so they could try to find an apartment. I mean, it's real quality social work that we're doing in the short term. I think beyond that, we need to build more shelters and have more spaces for people to be, so they're out of the elements.
I have read that Preble Street and the city are working to try to find solutions. What can you tell me about that?
We're having conversations to try to come up with a memo of understanding or go through some permitting process of some sort. That's what we're working on right now. In the meantime, we're still doing our outreach work, but trying to do it in a way that fits in with what the city's talking about.
I've heard that the city felt blindsided by this effort of ours. And I just don't understand that. We have been talking for weeks about this program, including with City of Portland staff people, other agencies, the faith community, our clients. We have advertised this program so people knew about it. So that surprised me, that they didn't know about it. I also don't know why a cease and desist order came across my desk from Mr. Hipple in the Parks Department. I know our phones work, I think a phone call could have worked. We could have been talking about this in that way, and now we have lawyers talking to one another. We're not a perfect agency, for sure. But we are doing the best we can in some really trying circumstances, as the world goes through such profound changes right now. So we're going to keep at it one way or another. I can assure you that.
Wednesday afternoon, Portland Mayor Kate Snyder said that the city is working with Preble Street and other organizations to get people fed and safely into shelters. She also emphasized that Portland does have ample shelter space available, including isolation spaces for people who may or do have COVID-19.
Nora Flaherty contributed to this report.