Portland policy aims to improve response to homeless camps on public property

Rebecca Descoteau has been camping around Portland for about the last year.

“It’s tough here,” said Descoteau, who is homeless and said she’s moved to different locations, including the newest one on the outskirts of Deering Oaks Park, where she’s been staying in a tent for the past few days.

The 30-year-old said she prefers camping to being in a shelter, which she says makes her depression and anxiety worse, and where she doesn’t feel as safe sleeping near strangers. But being outdoors also comes with challenges.

Rebecca Descoteau, 30, who moved to Portland from New Hampshire about a year ago near her camp in Portland. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

“Once you’re homeless, it’s kind of like, mentally, it’s exhausting, and the more things you lose, the more hopeless you feel,” said Descoteau, who described cases where cases were taken from him by others on the street and kicked out. private property near a parking lot where she had camped last winter.

The city does not track the number of unauthorized campsites, like the one where Descoteau is staying, but officials say they are noticing an increasing number of such sites as the weather warms and Portland continues to see high numbers homeless.

“Staff saw people camping in different places,” said acting city manager Danielle West. “There are certain places that we are noticing and we are working to make sure these people are trying to find an alternative space. We have seen an increase as summer approaches and I think that could be partly due to the increase in the number of homeless people in general.

The city is currently home to 506 homeless people, including 114 in its Oxford Street shelter and 392 in hotels, as well as 1,002 people in families, the majority of whom are asylum seekers. In total, just over 1,500 people are accommodated.

By October last year, by comparison, the city was serving 850 people in city-run shelters and hotels, including 343 single adults and 507 people with families.

NEW POLICY IN PLACE

In response to the growing number of people setting up campsites, Portland recently adopted a new policy on responding to sites on city property.

Many elements of the policy are things staff have been doing for some time, but the policy spells them out clearly and will help ensure consistent practice, West said. She also hopes the policy will help the city better meet the needs of homeless people and connect them to services.

“It’s really about putting what we’ve done on paper and having an established way of how we’re going to do things so that it’s clear to members of the public, community partners, council and also the staff… so it’s fair and clear to everyone,” she said.

The policy, which will be presented to council as a communications item on Monday, meaning no action by council is required, says that while state and local laws prohibit loitering and camping on public property , staff will not require the removal of campsites in the event of a city emergency. shelters are at capacity unless the campground is determined to be an obstacle or hazard.

Brandi R., at the camp where she is staying in Portland on Thursday. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

West said on Wednesday that the city’s Oxford Street Shelter, which provides shelter for individuals, is currently not at full capacity. “We haven’t reached that yet, as I understand it,” West said.

However, the policy states that if capacity is reached, the city’s social services administrator will notify the police department, the parks and recreation department and the city manager’s office. In cases where campsites are flagged for removal, at least 24 hours notice will be provided at most campsites prior to removal, the policy says.

The policy also encourages staff to work closely with community partners to offer resources and services, as well as enforcement, and includes a process to ensure personal effects removed from campsites will be inventoried and stored safely for so that their owners can recover them.

Amistad, a social service agency that provides peer support and harm reduction to people struggling with homelessness, mental illness and addiction, was one of many community groups that worked with the city to develop the policy. The agency will also play a key role in providing storage space for the personal effects of people who are evacuated from campsites.

BUSINESS FOLLOW-UP

Brian Townsend, executive director of Amistad, said city staff involved in the removal of campsites will notify people verbally or in writing how to contact the agency, where they are (at 103 India St.) and the time they will have to collect their belongings. The agency will receive and store everything collected in two vacant rooms it has.

“We will of course be looking to use this opportunity to check in with people and check out what their real needs are, their barriers to safety and housing and everything else,” Townsend said. “Some people will know us, but a lot won’t, so it seems like a good opportunity to get to know people.”

A homeless encampment near Deering Oaks Park on Thursday. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

He said he was happy to see that the city adopted the new policy.

“I think what we had in the past was a lack of clarity and kind of chaotic interventions with no policy to back it up,” Townsend said. “We thought it was detrimental to the people we support. They just didn’t know if their encampment was legal or not, who would be involved, what it would be like or anything else.

“It will have to have a life and unfold and if there are any practices that are not good they will have to be corrected, but at least having this policy and communication is a huge improvement so we are very excited about it. idea of ​​this.”

Descoteau hadn’t heard of the city’s new policy, but when told about it by a reporter on Thursday, she said she liked the idea of ​​being able to retrieve her belongings if a campsite was emptied.

“That would be perfect, it’s just a matter of how to say, ‘Hey, we got your stuff and it’s here,'” she said.

“WE HAVE NO PLACE TO GO”

Not everyone is so optimistic. In a cluster of tents on the edge of Deering Oaks near Forest Avenue, Neal, who is also homeless, said he didn’t think the property restitution plan would work.

A group of homeless people at a camp near Deering Oaks Park on Thursday. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Neal, who wouldn’t give his last name because he didn’t want his mother to know he was homeless, said he had lost several belongings, including clothes, winter boots and his denture, when a former campsite he was staying at on state property was licensed by the Maine Department of Transportation a few weeks ago.

He said he was also arrested for drinking in public and when it happened “it took forever” to retrieve a backpack he had with him. “And that was stored at the police department,” Neal said. “So no, I’m not buying that.”

Neal and a group of friends in the tents said they were told to move their campsites from an area near the Interstate 295 overpass on Wednesday, which brought them to the edge of Deering Oaks.

Paul Merrill, spokesman for the Maine Department of Transportation, said the department removes items, including campsites, from state rights-of-way for safety reasons, usually in response to a request or complaint from a municipality, the police or a company.

He said the department cleared three places where people were camping near the intersection of Forest Avenue and Interstate 295 on Wednesday, but had no details about the case described by Neal. Generally, Merrill said, the department tries to give people time to gather their things if they’re asked to clear an area.

Brandi R., at the camp she is staying in Portland on Thursday, said she has been unable to find affordable housing since becoming homeless four months ago. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Brandi, who didn’t want her last name published because she didn’t want people to criticize her ex-husband for being homeless, was among the group that moved to the outskirts of Deering Oaks. She said she became homeless about four months ago because her landlord in Windham had not properly maintained the caravan she was living in and as a result she could no longer use her Section 8 voucher the low.

Brandi said she hasn’t been able to find affordable housing since then and that she and her boyfriend couldn’t stay at the city shelter because he was kicked out after they got into a fight and they want to stay together. .

“What do they expect from us? ” she says. “We have nowhere to go.”

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