Portland city officials say slow progress is being made on the “societal crisis” in Deering Oaks Park, although there’s no immediate solution.
During a Sept. 3 Parks Commission meeting, Ethan Hipple, the city’s acting director of Parks, Recreation and Facilities, characterized the large crowds of people staying in Deering Oaks Park as an encampment and said there’s frequent “negative behavior,” such as open drug and alcohol use, and drug dealing.
The encampment in the park began about the same time as homeless protesters began camping outside City Hall in late July, demanding services and rights to be provided by the city to those experiencing homelessness.
The camping at City Hall Plaza lasted for more than two weeks. The number of people camping in Deering Oaks grew after people left City Hall.
“It’s hard to miss down there, and it’s part of a larger, societal crisis,” Hipple said.
But others at the meeting attributed the crowding in the parks to the decision by the Preble Street Resource Center to close its soup kitchen earlier this summer. Anne Pringle, president of the group Friends of Deering Oaks, said like all parks, Deering Oaks is there for all people to enjoy. However, that requires those using the park to follow a set of rules, which she said those camping in the park have ignored.
“Everyone is welcome,” Pringle said. “But basic rules have to be followed by all. So those basic rules involve no drug use or drug dealing, no public drinking, no public sex, no urination or defecation. That’s the basic principle. And all these behaviors have been observed.”
Pringle said it’s Preble Street’s fault these people are in the park, and their closing of services caused a “mass migration” to the park, which in turn created a series of problems.
She noted the death of Celestin Muhizi, a 76-year-old immigrant who was killed in the park in July when a driver struck Muhizi as he watched a baseball game. The driver, charged with manslaughter, had overdosed while driving. She said Muhizi was a survivor of the Rwandan genocide, who survived that only “to die in Deering Oaks Parks.”
“These are very serious situations,” Pringle said.
Preble Street has been blamed not just by Pringle, but by city officials including City Manager Jon Jennings for the situation in the park.
Preble Street has said the decision to close its soup kitchen and transition to meal delivery was made with guidance from the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, since a centralized, congregate setting like a soup kitchen for the homeless was dangerous during the coronavirus pandemic.
Some city councilors, including Councilor Belinda Ray, have said the city’s homeless population is not a new thing, and that it has only now become more visible to residents after that population shifted from the streets of Bayside to the green spaces of the park.
Pringle also claimed a large number of those encamped in the park are not city residents or Maine residents, and in some cases not even U.S. citizens. She said the state needs to step in and help and define a policy for homelessness.
“This is a problem that has to be dealt with by more than just the city of Portland,” Pringle said.
She urged the city not to decriminalize camping, which was a request by those who camped at City Hall, because that is a “slippery slope” that has been confronted around the country.
“If you start to allow overnight camping in the parks, it could create a myriad of issues,” Pringle said.
The best bet, she said, is for the city to complete a proposed shelter on Riverside Street.
Hipple said parks staff has resumed maintaining the park as much as they can, but there are still several places where it is deemed too dangerous for staff – particularly the area between Forest Avenue and High Street across from the U.S. post office, where Hipple said staff has routinely been threatened and accosted. He said it’s at the discretion of the shift supervisor about how far into that area staff go to rake, collect trash, and complete other maintenance projects.
Parks staff also had stopped maintaining large portions of Deering Oaks because of an increasing number of used hypodermic needles being found in the park, despite the presence of disposal bins in the park for people to dispose of used needles. Hipple said there have also been several assaults, overdoses, and arrests in the park.
He said the city continues to partner with other agencies, including Preble Street and the Opportunity Alliance, to try to provide services to those in the park, trying to get people to go to shelters, and seek additional services. The city’s Health and Human Services Department continues outreach, he said, and police and fire units are continuously responding to calls.
“It may not appear to the public like a lot is happening, but folks are actively there every day,” Hipple said. “It’s being thought about every day, but it is slow progress.”
Parks Commissioner Marie Gray called what’s going on in the park a “travesty,” saying it makes her “physically ill” when she drives by the encampment.
“It’s heartbreaking and infuriating,” Gray said. “Let us not forget this is a flagrant abuse of a public asset.”
Fellow Parks Commissioner Caitie Whelan pushed back at the comments from Pringle and Gray, saying throughout the city there has been “a real dehumanization of the folks in the park.”
“These are our fellow neighbors,” Whelan said. “They have been let down and they have not been served.”
Whelan said what’s going on in the park is certainly a “complex issue,” but the rest of the city should not lose sight of “the humanity of these individuals.” She said there’s no question people don’t want to be living in the park, but “this is where they found themselves.”
“I ask us to have a spirit of neighborliness,” Whelan said.
Encroachment issue tangles plans for Western Prom home sale
An unusual circumstance regarding licensing vacant city land to benefit the owner of a West End home being marketed for more than $1 million will require more deliberation before being sent to the City Council.
At a Sept. 3 Parks Commission meeting, commissioners tabled a discussion on leasing city-owned land to Thomas Zack at 46 Western Promenade. Initially, commissioners moved to approve the plan and send it to the council. But after some discussion and hearing from another city resident, the commissioners opted to wait for additional information.
Ethan Hipple, the acting director of Parks, Recreation and Facilities, said that the question results from a recently discovered encroachment onto city property from an already existing driveway, shed and patio at that address. He said the city wasn’t aware of the situation until 2013, although the owners have lived in that house for 40 years.
He said there aren’t many instances of this around the city, and when discovered, the city usually issues a cease-and-desist order in case the owner is constructing anything. In this case, a licensing agreement was proposed to allow the property owners to continue to use the city land for a total fee of $1,200 over 20 years.
Zack said he and his wife were told by a title company when they purchased the house that use of the abutting property would not be an issue. He said they intend to sell the property and have already purchased a condo on the East End. New owners would need additional liability insurance to use the property, he said, so they wanted to clear this up ahead of a sale.
Parks Commission Chair Cynthia Loebenstein said the city does not have a strong desire to sell off parts of parkland, and would rather enter into these disposition of use agreements.
Zack also said a hot tub on the property has been removed, the shed will be either sold or torn down, and the patio is basically a few boards to even the land that he “could remove … tomorrow.” He said the only real issue is some fencing protruding onto city land.
Commissioners seemed set to approve the plan until public comment began. George Rheault was the only speaker, but he convinced commissioners to change their vote.
He said this is essentially an unfair parking advantage for this property at a time when parking is in historically high demand, and characterized the Zacks as basically having had free city parking for 40 years. Under the proposed new agreement, he said the owners would have parking for what amounts to $5 a month for three vehicles, which can fit on the driveway. He said this is far from equitable since leasing space for one car in the city can cost around $125 a month.
“This is a very, very generous gift the city is about to make to this homeowner,” Rheault said. “Knowing we’re rifling through the sofa cushions for funding for parks right now, this isn’t the right time.”
He said the city should sell the piece of land, and put that money into the parks.
Hipple said the $1,200 is something like a deposit since it can be returned to the Zacks in the event the city or the owners terminate the agreement. Because of that, he said it was best to just hold onto the money and not use it for park improvements in the event the city must return it.
Commissioners ultimately changed their decision and tabled the matter, pending more information. Commissioner Dory Waxman cautioned the other members to move this quickly, however, since the Zacks want to sell their house.
There was some discussion about reverting the land for park use, but Loebenstein said that would basically require ripping up a driveway that has existed for 40 years, which was not an appropriate action.
The home at 46 Western Promenade is for sale for $1.05 million.
— Colin Ellis