Leftovers: For some, homelessness hits too close to home

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Weaving its way through the Nextdoor “neighbor-to-neighbor” website was a winding thread about a homeless sighting (or an encampment as one commenter called it) at the bottom of an outer Washington Avenue dead-end street.

Barely visible from the last gravel driveway was a tent, some black garbage bags full of stuff, a stack of wood, and a plastic wagon.

Natalie LaddLike any neighborly discussion low on facts and high on speculation, the thread comments are a mixed bag of judgment, outrage, compassion, opinion, and unrealistic solutions. Given the number of taxpaying citizens who chimed in, it was surprising only a few wanted to talk to me about it.

Maybe, given the lore of Christopher Thomas Knight – the 56-year-old guy who lived in isolation for 27 years on North Pond in the Belgrade Lakes region – fear of pop-up tent sightings is magnified.

Knight, a loner, became a serial burglar to survive his solitude and hide out from society. His story made local and national news, plus The Guardian, National Geographic, GQ, and a slew of what my grandmother (may she rest in peace) called shameless gossip rags. (Of course, there was no shame in her game when she devoured the National Enquirer cover-to-cover, sharing the most shocking headlines at the dinner table.) 

But here and now in Portland, our urban tent dweller is not Knight and there’s no hint of romance to the story the neighborhood network tells. 

“People can’t just set up and live wherever they like,” Marsha B. told me in a phone conversation. “I know the police have been called many times but those people up and move around a lot.” Asked if she knew who they were and why they’re camping out, her response was typical of many comments on the site:

“It’s bad enough that Deering Oaks is still overrun, but what is the city doing about it? There are campaign signs for smaller shelters. Hurry up and build them or open them, but this is terrible for us.”

The second person I spoke with, Jim Y., said “Everywhere I go businesses are looking for help,” before launching into a familiar speech about lazy people who refuse to work. I couldn’t get a word in to tell him it’s almost impossible to get a job without an address, and even harder to keep one without a place to shower.

Jim Y. would not be detoured to a discussion about the who and why. His conversation was focused on how to get them out of there. Out of the suburbs. Out of sight and out of his reality.

The South Branch Trail in South Portland was a project of the West End Trails Committee, a sub-committee of the South Portland Land Trust dedicated to making the west end of the city friendlier for pedestrians. (Portland Phoenix/Natalie Ladd)

I won’t get all Mary Sunshine optimistic about the state of homelessness in Portland, or pretend I know how I’d feel if that last gravel driveway were mine. But I did think about it when I took a walk on the South Branch Trail in South Portland on Sunday. 

Wedged between the parking lot at Clarks Pond and a strip mall of restaurants and stores on Westbrook Street is a wooded, half-mile loop cleared of brush with primary access points at the Cinemagic parking lot and on Philbrook Avenue. Well-marked and maintained, this sweet little patch of nature was a welcome departure from the mall area for Mellie (the Portland Phoenix director of barketing) and me.

After looping the area twice, Mellie was stubbornly determined to sniff out an area of interest off the path and behind two trees. After giving in to her pulling (she outranks me), we walked several feet to discover an abandoned towel and an empty soda bottle. There was also a dirty baby food jar which ruined the moment for me altogether. 

Afterward, I called back Marsha B. to ask what she thinks we should do and to see if she had anything else to share. 

“This isn’t going away,” she said with a sigh. Then, she surprised me.

“We have to do something,” she said. “I read a copy online of Portland’s Homeless Services Resources Guide put out by the parks department. They say it takes like six months to get people housed and if there’s a mental illness or addiction, it’s harder because of limited resources and how many people come from outside of Portland. It’s a sad problem.”

At last glance on Monday, the original Nextdoor thread had spun in a different direction. The tent, bags, wood, and wagon were gone. The police were patrolling the street more often and commenters had moved on to complaining about foxes and other small animals hibernating under their decks and steps.

What harm would these uninvited creatures do? It isn’t their natural habitat, or where they belong.

But small animals are not homeless human beings, so what harm, indeed?

Natalie Ladd is a Portland restaurant veteran, freelance writer, and connoisseur of all things Bruce Springsteen. She loves Boston sports, chewy red wine, and has never sampled a cheese she didn’t like. She can be reached at [email protected]