The Portland Phoenix

Portland closes City Hall, suspends Deering Oaks maintenance as encampments continue

The encampment on City Hall Plaza in Portland entered its fifth evening Monday, July 27, with protesters demanding policy changes from the city to support people in need of shelter and other necessities. (Portland Phoenix/Jim Neuger)

Portland city councilors on Monday night indicated they view the encampments at City Hall and in Deering Oaks Park as separate issues and directed city staff to not take any immediate action against protesters at City Hall while continuing to provide services to people camping in the park.

The tent-out protest at City Hall, which organizers originally said would last no more than three days and have no more than 25 participants, has grown and continued for at least five days and resulted in the building being closed to the public.

At Deering Oaks, meanwhile, officials said drug overdoses, evidence of drug use, and unsanitary conditions are growing – to the point where city employees are no longer entering the park to perform routine maintenance.

City Manager Jon Jennings said those protesting at City Hall have made policy demands, which is why he and his staff were coming to the council for guidance.

Portland City Manager Jon Jennings on Monday said City Hall is closed to the public as a result of the continuing encampment on City Hall Plaza. (Portland Phoenix/Jim Neuger)

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.

Jennings said the size of the protest at City Hall and the conditions it has created mean staff and residents with appointments don’t feel safe trying to enter the building. Because of this, Jennings said, City Hall is closed – as it was in mid-March when the coronavirus pandemic began – and city staff will work from home.

Jennings said a resident trying to get into City Hall was “accosted” by protesters Monday morning.

Protestors began camping out at City Hall Thursday, July 23, and said they now plan to continue indefinitely, despite the sweltering heat experienced in the past few days.

Jennings and his staff view the events going on in Deering Oaks Park as a different matter.

Kristen Dowd, director of the city’s Health and Human Services Division, said there have been “significant issues” in the park. She said Portland knows it needs other agencies to help resolve those issues, so it has been working with groups like Milestone.

Dowd said the city discovered many of those found in the park are not actually homeless, and either had accommodations in rental units, hotels provided by the city, or temporary housing.

“That was a surprise to me quite frankly,” she said.

She said it’s likely many people are gathering to socialize throughout the day, which is perhaps a contributor to an increasing number of drug overdoses.

Police Chief Frank Clark said there have been 13 calls about overdoses in the park since July 12, with six on July 26 alone. That doesn’t include the overdose where a driver crashed into a park bleacher and playground and killed a pedestrian, he said. Clark said there have been several assaults in the area as well, including an incident where a woman was stabbed.

“We can move people, but where to?” Clark said. “In our current climate, we’re in a ‘Catch-22.’”

Clark said while police will continue to address criminal behavior, they will rely on social services to get to the root of the problem.

“We can all agree homelessness is not a crime,” Clark said.

Clark said it’s not just the park that has been a dangerous place.

He said one person protesting at City Hall was sexually assaulted when an individual came up behind her and wrapped his arms around her. That person was later arrested, Clark said.

Dowd said although the protests have called for more housing, city shelters are currently only at 50 percent capacity. She admitted there is a sense of “desperation in the community” due to the widespread shutdown of day services due to COVID-19, and a resulting lack of access to food, water, and shelter from the heat.

However, she said the Preble Street Resource Center – which has had a public dispute with the city regarding its ability to deliver food to Deering Oaks Park – provides some help.

Dowd said the city and other agencies are also continuing to take steps to mitigate the problems, including delivering water and face coverings around the city.

A major health concern, raised by several councilors during Monday’s special, six-hour meeting, is the lack of appropriate COVID-19 safety precautions being taken by people camped at City Hall and in Deering Oaks.

Councilor Spencer Thibodeau, for example, said he’s passed through the park and seen no one wearing masks or face coverings.

“I’m very concerned about that part of the city,” Thibodeau said.

Ethan Hipple, director of Parks, Recreation and Facilities, said the congregation at the park has created a dangerous situation not just for those experiencing homelessness and staying at the park, but for visitors and city staff maintaining the park.

Hipple said homeless individuals have always been welcome in the city’s parks. However, each summer does create a string of issues, and ultimately make parts of the park unwelcoming. He said this summer, however, has made the park unwelcoming even for those experiencing homelessness.

The park has had several biohazard situations, he said, because of human feces being scattered and what he called a staggering number of discarded, used hypodermic needles. In July, Hipple said, the city picked up 244 discarded needles. Of those, only 20 were in the receptacles the city provides for disposal of used needles. The others were found in the grass, in shrubs, under trees – basically anywhere where a park visitor, child, or pet could accidentally encounter them.

Hipple said one park worker was accidentally stuck with a needle recently. Although this person did not become ill, Hipple said he is concerned he will lose this employee because of the dangers staff are facing.

“That really hit home for us, it was sobering,” he said.

Hipple said parks crews are no longer going in and maintaining the park. Parks staff and public works will continue to pick up trash at the edges of the property, but routine, everyday maintenance has stopped.

“Park maintenance can wait until the situation dissipates,” he said.

The council’s remote discussion was a workshop, so Mayor Kate Snyder said they would not take public comment on the issues surrounding City Hall or Deering Oaks Park. However, during an hour-long public comment section on items not on the agenda, several people spoke up about the issue of homelessness in the city, and councilors largely allowed them to continue.

Several of these individuals challenged councilors to not interrupt them as they spoke, and several refused to provide their full names when asked to do so by Snyder.

Councilor Pious Ali considered moving to suspend the rules and allow public comment but ultimately did not after gauging council interest.

Charmagne Shaw, who said she called in from City Hall, said she wanted to know why the council was deliberately silencing the homeless.

“We are the reason why this is being talked about,” Shaw said.

Shaw said her mother died on Sunday “on the streets” from an overdose because the city wasn’t providing her the resources she needed.

“People are dying on the streets,” she said, as the sound of protesters nearby could be heard in the background. “There’s so much more you can be doing to save lives if you let us talk and tell you what you need to get done.”

Because it was a workshop, the council did not take any action. Snyder summed up the will of the group as a desire to see City Hall reopen as soon as possible, while not forcing protestors at City Hall Plaza to move. Additionally, she said the council would like to see continued engagement with those in Deering Oaks about services available to them.

Councilors told those who called in wishing for a chance to make comments to call back during the Aug. 3 council meeting, when items not on the agenda can be discussed during a scheduled public comment section.

A man shelters in Deering Oaks Park in Portland, across from the Federal Building on Monday, July 27. (Portland Phoenix/Jim Neuger)

City, Preble Street at odds

Portland’s Preble Street Resource Center found itself in an odd position recently, when it was told to stop delivering food to people camped at Deering Oaks Park.

The center, a staple for those experiencing homelessness in the area, was issued a cease and desist order by the city as the number of those claiming to be homeless in the park increased.

Recently, the center permanently closed its soup kitchen in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, opting to transition to a meal-delivery style of service. Preble Street was delivering meals twice a day to the park when it was told a permit was necessary.

In a prepared statement, Preble Street Executive Director Mark Swann said the agency is not comfortable with returning to congregate feeding – like a soup kitchen – given the coronavirus health crisis.

“We’re concerned that reverting to a single food distribution location goes against the guidance and recommendations of experts who seek to protect people experiencing homelessness and the broader community, and could potentially undermine efforts to reduce the spread of COVID-19,” Swann said.

“Preble Street remains committed to its mission and to feeding people who are hungry, and we’re continuing to work with the city of Portland on solutions which might include city staff distributing food Preble Street produces.”

During its Monday night workshop, City Councilors defended the city’s action regarding the park. Councilor Belinda Ray, whose district includes the park, said it was not the city’s decision to close Preble Street’s kitchen.

“They are their own organization who make their own decisions,” she said.

Ray also said what people are seeing at Deering Oaks “is not new,” but rather represents a shift to a more public venue. These actions include public urination and defecation, open drug use, and public fornication.

“It’s been occurring in Bayside for at least the past five years,” she said.

Councilor Jill Duson called Preble Street a “hostile partner” for the city at this time, saying the acrimony between the city and center is at a new high.

“I haven’t heard a lot of solutions on what we’re going to do,” Duson said. She said while she couldn’t give guidance to staff, what she and other councilors can do is ensure staff has the resources needed to continue their work.

Dan D’Ippolito, Preble Street community engagement director, told the Phoenix the situation at Deering Oaks is tragic, and the solution is making effective emergency shelters available.

“The solution is in good, solid social work outreach efforts meeting people where they are at,” D’Ippolito said. “The solution is not to deny food, (but) to be available to people who are hungry and ill and unsheltered. Nor is the solution to simply move the crowds of people to another site.”

He continued, “Encouraging or forcing people to gather in even more crowds, and walking from place to place during a public health emergency to get food, directly negates public health directives.”

— Colin Ellis

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