Although some people are again occupying a small area in Deering Oaks Park this summer, the organization Friends of Deering Oaks Park said the state of the park is much better than a year ago when there was a high profile homeless encampment. (Portland Phoenix/Colin Ellis)
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It’s been almost a year since large homeless encampments took over two of the most visible parts of Portland: a portion of Deering Oaks Park and the steps of City Hall.

And although there are new concerns about people again gathering in the park along Forest Avenue across the street from the Federal Building and post office, and trash that is accumulating, city officials deny there is a new encampment in the park.

City Hall spokesperson Jessica Grondin declined to arrange an interview with the director of the city’s Parks, Recreation and Facilities Department, and said city staff would not discuss what is evident to anyone passing by the area this summer: people are loitering, sleeping, and congregating in the section of park known as the Rose Circle.

Trash litters a section of Deering Oaks Park in Portland on June 27 near the intersection of High Street and Park Avenue. City officials say the park is being maintained and cleaned regularly, unlike last summer, but declined to discuss the overall state of the park.(Portland Phoenix/Colin Ellis)

David Singer, a spokesperson for the Portland Police Department, declined to discuss the situation and deferred to Grondin.

Last summer, however, the city deemed the larger gathering an “encampment.”

Officials described it as part of a “societal crisis” marked by drug and alcohol abuse, drug dealing, overdoses, fights, assaults, unsanitary conditions created by a lack of restrooms, and unsafe conditions created by discarded, used syringes – so much so that parks staff were pulled out of the park and routine maintenance was temporarily discontinued.

Last July, a 76-year-old man was killed in the park when a driver struck him while he watched a baseball game. The driver, charged with manslaughter, had overdosed behind the wheel.

Last summer’s encampment began about the same time that protesters began camping on the steps of City Hall in late July, demanding city officials provide additional services and rights to those experiencing homelessness. One of those demands was the decriminalization of camping on city property.

The camping at City Hall Plaza lasted more than two weeks; when they left the steps of City Hall, the number of people camping in Deering Oaks grew. The conditions outside City Hall at the time led to the closing of City Hall to customers and staff, even though some staff had returned to work during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.  

Homelessness is far from a new issue in Portland, but how the city addressed it became more complicated during the pandemic. Emergency shelters were limited to accommodate social distancing, and as such, the city began temporarily housing unsheltered individuals in area hotels.

The continuing challenge of homelessness is mixed in with a worsening drug epidemic, and 2021 is on pace to exceed Maine’s record of 504 overdose deaths in 2020. That number was up from 380 in 2019. Through April, the state reported 199 confirmed or suspected overdose deaths.

According to the city, drug and alcohol use, and smoking of any kind, is prohibited in all parks. Likewise, camping is not permitted in any park, open space, playground, trail, or athletic field. Parks are open from 6:30 a.m.-10 p.m., with the exception of Tommy’s Park and Post Office Park in the Old Port, which are open until 1 a.m.

In addition to being one of the city’s largest areas of open space, Deering Oaks Park is home to public attractions such as the weekly Farmers Market, playgrounds, athletic fields, the Victorian duck house and pond, and the summer wading pool.

Grondin said the city continues to have Health and Human Services staff do outreach to ensure those who need social services are aware of and seek the help. She also pointed to the City Council’s recent decision to approve funding for day-shelter service. A request for proposals for that project has been issued.

Grondin said trash is being collected in the park, and police are enforcing restrictions on camping and park hours, and state laws against public drinking. She also noted the Police Department’s behavioral health team has been expanded and now conducts regular outreach in the area that includes the park.

Anne Pringle, president of the nonprofit organization Friends of Deering Oaks Park, said the park is in much better shape today than it was a year ago, which she said is likely proof the outreach there last year succeeded. She estimated the number of people congregating in the park, specifically across from the post office, is just 10 percent of what it was last summer.

“I have no insights on who is gathering there now,” Pringle said. “The one thing I perceive is the trash, which I wish there was some way for advocates to make people understand they should follow the same norms as everyone else of putting trash in a receptacle.”

Pringle said she did not know how many hypodermic needles the city has collected, but said she hasn’t seen reports of overdoses or sanitation problems.

“We had a lot of problems last summer” with public defecation, she said.

Pringle said there were some lingering complaints around the post office this spring, with reports of people leaving their belongings in the area.

“I don’t know how that was addressed,” she said, “but it’s not an ongoing problem.”

Early this week, yellow emergency tape stretched along the post office sidewalks on Forest and Park avenues, restricting access to the property. A U.S. Postal Service spokesperson said the area was recently seeded and the tape was placed to discourage people from walking on the grass.

Dealing with the drug crisis

According to information provided to the City Council’s Health and Human Services and Public Safety Committee, the Portland’s Needle Exchange Program conducted 605 exchanges in the month of May, including 333 exchanges at its India Street base.

There were more than 27,000 needles collected and just under 38,000 needles distributed. There were 841 needles collected known as community needles, including 452 from community sharps containers. The city has met with Amistad to discuss additional sharps boxes to collect needles. There are several around the city, and the most heavily used is the box on Oxford Street, which collected 812 needles since November 2020.

One of the least used sharps boxes is in Deering Oaks Park, which has collected just three needles since November 2020. Information provided to the HHS Committee suggests this number is low because individuals who might otherwise deposit needles into the sharps box there aren’t doing so for fear of being caught with excessive needles, and are disposing of their used needles elsewhere – in the trash, around the park, or perhaps in other boxes.

The city also distributed more than 400 doses of Narcan in May.

— Colin Ellis