Protests outside Portland City Hall show no sign of abating as the dog days of summer tick by on the calendar.
People living in tents on City Hall Plaza along Congress Street and stretching down Chestnut Street are protesting for action on homelessness. The protest began two weeks ago and was only supposed to last three days, with no more than 25 participants.
Both those limits were easily eclipsed.
As a result of the action and confrontations with people trying to get into City Hall for business, City Manager Jon Jennings closed City Hall, which had only recently been reopened after shutting down because of the coronavirus pandemic. City employees are working from home.
Last week, Jennings estimated his action will result in an additional weekly revenue loss of at least $275,000.
The demands of the protesters include city investment in affordable and free housing; providing safe housing for various groups, such as families, members of the LGBTQ community, and individuals with physical and mental disabilities; meeting basic needs such as food, water, bathrooms, showers and laundry; providing warming shelters during the cold months; having green spaces where camping is permitted, and access to free health care.
Portland police have arrested several individuals at the camps, including after a man who overdosed while driving through Deering Oaks and drove his car into a playground area, killing an elderly man watching a baseball game.
There have been several fights and assaults at both sites, including a stabbing at the park and a sexual assault at City Hall, according to Police Chief Frank Clark. On Saturday, there was a shooting at City Hall. According to a press release from Lt. Robert Martin, the shooting occurred just before 5 a.m. on Aug. 1, and more than 30 protesters were in the camp at the time of the shooting.
Martin said witnesses saw a black vehicle driving east on Congress Street while filming the encampment, before making a U-turn near the Central Fire Station and stopping near Market Street. A protester from the encampment went up to the car and threw a firecracker at it, which exploded. As the protester was walking back to the tents, someone in the car pulled a handgun and fired several shots, before the car made another U-turn and drove east on Congress Street.
Police described the driver as a white man in his 30s, with an athletic build and facial hair. No arrests have been made, and police said they continue to identify witnesses and seek video footage from cameras in the area.
Police said two protesters were arrested for interfering with officers as they worked to investigate the incident. Nicholas Closson, 38, and Jacob Jensen, 31, both of Portland, were arrested for allegedly obstructing government administration.
In a prepared statement that acknowledged homelessness exists statewide and requires a collaborative response, Clark did not mince words about the situation at City Hall.
“The city manager and I both believe that the situation as it exists in City Hall Plaza, however, is unacceptable in terms of public health, public safety and continuity of municipal operations,” Clark said. “Officers have and will continue to respond to the encampment to address reported drug use, overdoses, indecent conduct, fights, and other criminal and violent behavior that now includes gunfire. The crowd has surrounded and attempted to physically block first responders from both police and MedCU. Prompt steps need to be taken by the city and community partners to address the situation and enhance the safety of the public and city employees, including my officers.”
Aaron Porter, a man living in a City Hall tent who described himself as an unofficial camp organizer and security overseer, said there are safety concerns at the City Hall camp and the camps nearby in Deering Oaks Park not just for city residents, but for those staying in the camps as well. He said while there have been difficulties in the camp with confrontations and fights, anyone found causing disturbances has been asked to leave, and confrontations have typically been resolved without police intervention.
“We do our best to maintain safety,” he said on a hot Thursday afternoon, with dozens of protesters milling about around him.
Porter, however, also said police haven’t shown a level of rapid response, either. He said police are not responding quickly enough to overdose calls, which have led to deaths in the city.
“Sometimes their priorities are askew,” he said.
Police and fire officials have maintained those camping at City Hall have made it difficult for first responders. During a City Council meeting last week, Fire Chief Keith Gautreau said protesters have deliberately made it difficult for medical responders to provide aid to people in the camp, either blocking them or refusing to provide information about who may need aid.
Porter said despite these claims from city officials, the dozens of people sleeping and staying at the camp are there for a good reason.
“We’re hoping we can provide more resources for people to have a chance at recovery,” Porter said. “Not just at homelessness, but for addiction, too.”
Porter said he and others in the camp want to have overdose prevention sites and opportunities for peer support. He said they’d like to have an environment where people who are addicted can use cleanly and dispose of needles appropriately. He said ideally, they hope to have people know appropriate doses so they don’t overdose.
As Porter spoke, a man had sprawled on a set of stone stairs leading up to City Hall, asleep under the hot sun. A woman in the camp walked up to him and spoke, but the man didn’t move or react, and the woman walked away.
“We want to decriminalize camping, so people aren’t being woken up in the middle of the night,” Porter said. “You can’t sleep in public. If you are, you’re asked to move.”
Porter said other short-term goals include the extension of a freeze on evictions.
“There are certain times in people’s lives when things get difficult,” he said.
He said they want to defund the police, which has become a rallying cry across the country following the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Porter said they would like to see that money reallocated toward housing and mental health resources.
While he spoke, there were several police cruisers, including state police vehicles, in the area, but there weren’t any uniformed police officers near the camp. It was just those living in the tents, and people handing out free food, water, and clothes.
“It’s tough sometimes, but we try to all stand together,” Porter said. “People are standing up to take more responsibility and assist each other.”
Porter said the City Hall camp has become a community, different than the groups of people who historically hung around near the Preble Street Resource Center. Porter said the people at the camp have been “leveling up.”
“Many people here have become better people here than they ever would have at Preble Street,” he said. “That’s not an attack, we’ve been appreciative of them. We want to lift people up, it’s not a competition.”
Mayor Kate Snyder recently went to Lincoln Park, in front of the state courthouse, for a listening session with protesters. Porter said that was fine, and they are still largely in the “beginning stages” of negotiations with the city. But he said those at the camp were prepared to stay.
“The direction we’re moving towards is to bridge the gap of understanding,” he said. “We’re hoping our two community outlooks can eventually have a common ground.”
City officials, however, look at the encampment at Deering Oaks Park as a separate matter.
Jennings and the directors of health and human services and parks departments have said drug use in the park is bordering on out of control, especially near the Federal Building on Forest Avenue. The occurrence of drug use, overdoses, and discarded needles has become so dangerous to workers that the city has stopped having parks employees perform routine maintenance in the park.
Ethan Hipple, director of Parks, Recreation and Facilities, said one parks employee was stuck with a discarded needle. Though the city has receptacles for the collection of needles, they are rarely used.
Anne Pringle, president of the Friends of Deering Oaks Park organization, said while it is fundamental that parks are available to everyone, the catch is people have to abide by the rules so the experience can be safe for everyone. Pringle placed the blame for drug dealing, overdoses, and people openly defecating on Preble Street Resource Center.
“The concern we have is there’s a lot of unsafe behavior going on since Preble Street initiated the mobile food delivery,” Pringle said.
Preble Street closed its soup kitchen to avoid congregate feeding situations out of concern of the risks of COVID-19 and began delivering meals twice a day to the park. The organization was later told by the city it needed a permit to do so.
“This started when they started doing meal delivery,” Pringle said. “People weren’t sleeping in the park before.”
Pringle said the situation in the park has become very dangerous, with those staying in tents not wearing masks or observing social distancing rules despite the risk of COVID-19. She said she’s not sure if the current method of outreach will work, but also said she’s not sure what happens next.
“It’s a shame we’ve gotten to this where reasonable requests from the city are dismissed out of hand by Preble Street,” she said.
Preble Street has maintained its decision was out of guidance for safety in the face of COVID-19, and that forcing those experiencing homelessness to congregate at Preble Street in a soup kitchen would not be in the best interest of public safety. It has also stated the solution to the problem isn’t simply to deny food delivery or move crowds of people to a less visible site.
Pringle said her organization does not advise the city, but its message is simply that the park situation has to be brought under control. She said they hope a police sweep of the camps can be avoided.
“It’s very dangerous not just for those there, but for the public,” she said.
Pringle said Friends of Deering Oaks Park has been trying to address statewide planning for Maine’s homeless population. She said Portland has historically had “more than its fair share” of homeless people from around the state and even outside of Maine.
“We have accepted a disproportionate responsibility,” she said. “… We really need a statewide plan.”
But that is something the administration of Gov. Janet Mills would have to tackle.
In the meantime, on a recent Thursday afternoon, there were just about a dozen people camped out in the park, none wearing masks or observing social distancing, with a few blankets and some empty water bottles littered around a tent.
“It’s a very complicated and dangerous situation,” Pringle said.
Hours of City Council discussion, no progress toward resolution
Portland city staff scrambled to convince people camping at City Hall Plaza and Deering Oaks Park to seek indoor shelter as tropical storm Isaias approached the region.
City Manager Jon Jennings told the City Council Monday night his management plan for the people in City Hall Plaza and at Deering Oaks Park is to continue focusing on outreach, while also doing everything possible to reopen city hall and return to business as usual.
Councilors spent several hours discussing the issue and taking public comment, but they didn’t take any action to immediately resolve the standoff between the city and protesters who now occupy parts of three streets around City Hall.
Corporation Counsel Danielle West-Chuhta said the city has been trying to apply the lessons learned from the OccupyMaine protests several years ago to what is going on now. Those protests began at City Hall and were eventually moved to Lincoln Park and dispersed.
“From a city staff perspective, we’re doing outreach and focusing on that,” West-Chuhta said.
Several councilors said while the city’s management plan is fine, there is an immediate need for restroom facilities.
Councilor Belinda Ray said the problem of people openly urinating, defecating, using drugs, and fornicating isn’t new to the city and has been going on in the Bayside neighborhood for years.
“People need to have a place to relieve themselves in Portland,” she said. “We don’t have restrooms readily available for people.”
Jennings said the city has been working with Portland Downtown to establish public restrooms and said there are a handful of Port-A-Potties available on Fore Street. But he warned the city doesn’t have the personnel necessary to clean and maintain public restrooms.
He also said the city is facing a $12 million loss of revenue, which will require job cuts in the upcoming budget.
First and foremost, Jennings said, the city needs the protest at City Hall to begin winding down so staff can return to business.
Councilor Nick Mavodones, who asked city staff to rehash several points they made last week during a workshop about what was going on at the park and city – open drug use, documented assaults, and ordinance requirements on crowd sizes without permits – said there should be a balance between people’s right to protest and ensuring public health and safety for everyone.
“I feel like sooner or later these issues have to stop, not the protesting, but the public health issues,” he said. “I would be in favor of working with organizers to wrap this up soon.”
Mavodones said when he passes by the protests every day, he seldom sees people wearing masks or face coverings, or observing social distancing guidelines.
“We need to ensure there’s an appropriate way and venue for people to express and protest, but we need to figure a way to ensure that’s not happening in front of City Hall,” he said.
Jennings said he has spoken with Gov. Janet Mills, who recommended the city close a street near the Preble Street Resource Center for food distribution. City officials have claimed the encampments at Deering Oaks became unruly when Preble Street permanently closed its soup kitchen and transitioned to a mobile food delivery service.
Conflict with Preble Street
Staff and councilors were critical of Preble Street during Monday night’s meeting.
Councilor Tae Chong said he reached out to Preble Street Executive Director Mark Swann several times, and never got a response.
Kristen Dow, director of the city’s Health and Human Services Division, said the city asked Preble Street to reopen for day services, but the organization declined because it is transitioning to a 40-bed shelter.
Jennings stressed the city had nothing to do with Preble Street’s decision.
Councilor Jill Duson, meanwhile, said city staff must move on from Preble Street and find other ways to provide day services to those in need. She said the city is “the source of last resort,” and it needs to find ways to deal with the problem.
“I feel strongly our response needs to be a public health response, a social service response,” Duson said.
Jennings said he has had conversations about using the Cross Insurance Arena as a place for day services, but it is owned and operated by the county, so that is a decision for county commissioners.
City staff has said the majority of those protesting at City Hall or camped in the park are not truly homeless – they have housing to use, either rented, temporary, or a shelter.
However, protesters who spoke during the public comment section pushed back against this. Some said the city’s calculations about who is homeless and who isn’t are inaccurate. They also said they don’t intend to abandon the protest.
Cody Taylor, who said he is living at the City Hall camp and has spoken up before, said the city is not taking responsibility for its vulnerable population. He said the group there is not moving until its demands are met.
Those demands include city investment in affordable and free housing; providing safe housing for various groups, such as families, members of the LGBTQ community, and individuals with physical and mental disabilities; meeting basic needs such as food, water, bathrooms, showers and laundry; providing warming shelters during the cold months; having green spaces where camping is permitted, and access to free health care.
Taylor said in the very immediate sense, the city could meet the demands of decriminalizing camping, defunding the police, and reallocating that money towards mental health services and extending the eviction freeze.
Taylor also said any complaints about odor or sanitation must be addressed by the city since it is the city’s “responsibility to provide us with public bathrooms.”
“I urge you to take responsibility,” he said. “This is the package that comes with homelessness, violence, mental health. This is what homelessness looks like.”
Taylor said the people staying at the camp that the city identifies as having housing available are “housed allies.”
“The reason people stay here rather than the shelter is we are providing better and more resources than the shelter itself,” Taylor said.
Heather Zimmerman, advocacy director for Preble Street, also criticized the city’s claim that only about 10 people protesting are truly homeless. Zimmerman said a survey done in February found there were 83 people in the city who were totally unsheltered.
“It’s a crisis of magnitude we have not seen before,” she said.
Several other members of the public spoke out, largely asking the city to meet the demands of the protesters.
Ken Capron reprimanded councilors for talking for hours and not coming to any kind of solution to help those protesting or experiencing homelessness.
“You just wasted two hours letting nine councilors rehash their positions,” Capron said. “I would’ve expected a motion three hours (ago) about putting toilets in the parks and at the courthouse.”
Capron said the city isn’t close to any kind of solution, long or short term.
“Why would we want you as our councilors if this happens?” he said. “These folks need solutions today. All this peripheral discussion doesn’t solve the problem.”
— Colin Ellis