Portland’s handling of the clearing out of large-scale homeless encampments has been an appropriate measure to try to get those living in the camps into shelter or housing, according to one longtime social service worker.
Cullen Ryan, the executive director of Community Housing of Maine and who also sits on housing boards like the city-affiliated Emergency Shelter Action Committee, said he believes the city is handling their approach to the encampments “extremely well.”
“I think they’re doing all the right things,” Ryan said.
Portland’s ongoing housing crisis has intensified since the pandemic. An annual census taken in January of 2023 found that 4,258 homeless people were counted in Maine, up from 3,455 last year and 1,297 in 2020, according to the Maine Monitor. Meanwhile, Portland has received at least a thousand new asylum seekers since the first of the year, putting additional pressure on the city’s social services.
The “best practices” for addressing homeless encampments, Ryan said, is to try and find people living there a shelter or more permanent housing which will create long-term improvement of care. He sees the city taking that path.
“Clearing out an encampment without shelter is not a best practice,” Ryan said. “What the city is doing is in keeping with best practices, to find (those in the camps) a place to stay. And only then does the city look to remove an encampment. The city is setting itself up to do that in a respectful manner.”
City officials previously moved out those living on the Bayside Trail behind Trader Joe’s and Planet Fitness in the spring, though many who had been camping there moved elsewhere in the city across the street to places such as the park-and-ride lot. The city’s hands were “tied” when it came to clearing out the Bayside Trail encampment, Ryan argued, due to the unsafe conditions that had grown there.
The city is now focused on clearing an encampment along the Fore River Parkway by early September. It currently has around 45 tents, which is just slightly smaller than the one that previously occupied the Bayside Trail. Some land around the parkway is owned by the state, not the city.
Ryan acknowledged that many in the Fore River Parkway encampment have been reluctant to seek shelter, echoing recent statements by the city’s director of health and human services Kristen Dow. But he knows at least three individuals living there who have now come around to the idea of going to the emergency services shelter on Riverside, which only recently had beds begin to become available.
The shelter has been “consistently full,” according to city spokesperson Jessica Grondin, until around 30 beds became available in June.
“We’ve been finding new people to take them,” Grondin said.
Councilor Pious Ali, who chairs the Council’s Housing and Economic Development Committee, said if a person doesn’t want to go to the shelter, “there must be a reason, and it may be they need a different service” than what the Riverside shelter provides.
It’s important in those cases to “bring in people with different skills,” like the many different service providers around the city, Ali said. The city tries to do that in instances when a person doesn’t want to go.
Another challenge facing the Riverside Shelter, Ali said, is that it has also been used to house asylum seekers who don’t often require the same services as those living in an encampment. The goal for city officials, then, is to move asylum seekers to other locations. Currently, roughly 300 individuals have been staying at the Portland Expo Center, though that agreement is slated to end on Aug. 5.
“We have been given the green light by the state to move people into alternative spaces, which means maybe hotels,” Ali said.
The city had looked into partnering with Unity College to house asylum seekers, though Ali said those conversations hadn’t “gone as smoothly” as the city had hoped.
“We all know we are in the middle of a housing crisis, we are leaving no stone unturned,” Ali said. “This cannot be done overnight.”
The city had previously partnered with surrounding hotels to find space not just for asylum-seeking families, but also for people experiencing homelessness, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic. Hundreds of asylum seekers had to leave South Portland hotels earlier this summer, though one hotel agreed to remain on as an emergency shelter but with a strict end date of June 30, 2024.
In April 2022, the entirety of the Quality Inn in Saco was used to house asylees, who later had to relocate.
Ryan said it will take a “full court press” to get those living on the Fore River Parkway out of the camp and into shelter space. Once those individuals are sheltered and the camp is clear, the city will turn its attention to another.
“The bottom line is that everyone deserves to be inside,” he said. “And we as a city have to insist that they are inside.”