PORTLAND — When you live on the street, the good days are few and far between, but Thursday was a good day for Amber Lesperance.
“I just found out I got on a waiting list for rehab,” she said, standing in a homeless encampment of tents and other makeshift shelters at a park-and-ride lot on Marginal Way, hard by Interstate 295, the main connector to downtown. “I just hope I can get in before the next sweep.”
Lesperance, 35, has already endured the chaos and disruption caused by two previous sweeps of homeless encampments, when city workers recently cleared tents in other parts of the city, once in May and again this month.
It’s a depressing game of whack-a-mole, because as soon as the city clears one of the encampments, another one springs up elsewhere.
“Where are we supposed to go?” said Bruce Cavallaro, 45, who has been living on the streets of his hometown for seven years.
The problem is one that vexes city officials. But for better and worse, sweeps are Portland’s policy. Now, a Portland social service group, Preble Street, is recommending what it says is a different solution. Under a seven-point plan, it says political leaders should go after federal and state housing vouchers and spend six months aggressively hunting for appropriate housing and shelter options. On top of that, outreach workers and programs should be dramatically increased to work with individuals with complex mental health and drug problems. The bottom line, outreach workers say, is the need for more resources and patience.
The encampments are similar to those at Boston’s Mass and Cass, where Mayor Michelle Wu has proposed an ordinance that bans tents.
In Portland, as in Boston, the city’s response to the question of where to go has been: to a shelter. But shelters in Portland are filled almost every night, and even if they aren’t, many who live in the more than 200 tents don’t want to go. They see shelters as dangerous or claustrophobic or so governed by rules that they’d rather stay outside.
Social workers and outreach workers at Preble Street, which has worked to combat homelessness and poverty in Portland for decades, say the city’s approach of sweeping away the encampments is actually counterproductive to efforts to get people off the street.
Last spring, a group from Preble Street visited Boston to observe the city’s approach to the issue at Mass and Cass.
Like Boston, Portland’s municipal government is progressive, but finds itself caught between compassion for unhoused people, on the one side, and residents and business owners who are demanding action.
Henry Myer, director of Preble Street’s street outreach collaborative, said the Portland outreach workers were impressed by Boston’s “efforts to meet basic needs” at Mass and Cass, but are not in favor Mayor Wu’s proposed ordinance, saying the tents are all that people in Portland have between themselves and the pavement. Portland city officials, meanwhile, say they are sticking with the current policy of regular sweeps, though they are open to other options.
Outreach workers say the time for a change has come.
“Existing research shows that sweeps are bad: People lose survival gear and are scattered,” said Myer, pointing to a recent study in the Journal of the American Medical Association that shows the involuntary displacement of homeless people causes spikes in mortality, overdoses, and hospitalization.
Myer said sweeping out the encampments retraumatizes the people living in them and makes it harder for outreach workers to find and stay in touch with them, creating an even wider gulf between those living on the street and those trying to persuade them to enter a shelter. Myer said that after the Sept. 6 sweep at the Fore River encampment, many people who had signed up for services and were in the early stages of the process of transitioning to shelter “said please take me off the list.”
“It just erodes trust,” he said.
Across the street from the Marginal Way encampment, Anna McCoy, vice president of Port City Flooring, said she has compassion and empathy for the approximately 100 people living there. But she said their presence, and the disruption it has cause — with open drug dealing and fights — has hurt business and left workers and customers frightened and frustrated.
Last month, she said, a man who appeared to be high on drugs walked across from the encampment and entered the store, saying someone was trying to stab him. The store now has a security guard out front.
“We have a front-row seat to a level of human suffering that is hard to fathom,” McCoy said, looking out the store’s window to the encampment. “We are asking for help.”
Caught between the outreach workers who say the city’s policy of sweeping encampments is cruel and counterproductive, and residents and business people who say the tents have to go, is Danielle West, the city manager.
For this city of 68,000, West said housing the approximately 1,000 unhoused people in Portland, and the 1,600 asylum seekers who have arrived in the city since January, is the biggest challenge the city faces.
West said she is aware that advocates for the homeless oppose the policy of clearing out encampments, saying she and the City Council she reports to are open to “alternative responses,” including a plan to add more beds to the city’s homeless service center.
“It took us a while as a city to get to this point, and it will take a while for us to figure it out,” she said.
Three of the nine city councilors have gone on record as opposing the policy of periodic sweeps of encampments, and at the City Council’s hearing on Tuesday advocates from Preble Street and others like Jess Falero, who works with the nonprofit Church of Safe Injection, will call on the Council to ban the practice and focus on creating actual housing.
“Encampments are not the solution,” Falero said, “but doing something that we know will lead to more deaths is unconscionable.”
Donna Yellen, a social worker and vice president of strategic initiatives at Preble Street, said that as recently as five years ago, Maine led the nation with the least number of unsheltered people.
“The pandemic turned everything on its head,” she said.
She said the current problem’s roots precede the pandemic, going back to two significant policy changes five to six years ago, when former city manager John Jennings ended the city’s historical commitment to provide shelter to anyone who needed it, and former governor Paul LePage dropped the state’s general assistance program reimbursement rate for things like homeless services. She said more resources are needed.
Jessica Grondin, a spokesperson for the city, said things got even worse this year, when a federal program that paid for motel rooms for unhoused people during the pandemic was ended.
At the Marginal Way encampment last week, trash was strewn on grass in places but not in the area around Cavallaro’s tent, where he and others say they are conscientious about picking up waste. City officials said they intend to dismantle the encampment but have not set a date. That leaves the people living there anxious.
“I feel safer here than in the shelter. This is a real community,” Cavallaro said. “I’ve been through two sweeps already, and they say they’re coming back for us again. It’s like waiting for the guillotine to drop.”
Kevin Cullen is a Globe reporter and columnist who roams New England. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.