Portland, Maine, is currently in the midst of a homelessness crisis. Housing has been becoming increasingly unaffordable—a problem no doubt worsened by the recent influx of remote workers from out of state—and incoming asylum seekers have been straining city resources. As a result of these strains, Portland’s unsheltered homeless have been, since the beginning of last year, creating large encampments across the city. An encampment at Harbor View Memorial Park, for example, at one point had as many as 100 inhabitants. In response to these developments, the city has enacted several forcible clearing operations—a policy Mayor Dion appears determined to continue. This policy is misguided.
Despite how cruel destroying the makeshift shelters of the unhoused may seem, city officials maintain that this policy is in fact in the best interest of Portland’s most vulnerable. The homeless cannot simply be left unattended and exposed to the elements, city officials argue. Such circumstances risk deaths from exposure, overdoses, or fires. Admittedly, the city’s concerns are not unfounded: heaters used by encampment residents have caused fires and even taken lives. But officials’ concerns are not effectively addressed by encampment sweeps.
If the city truly wishes to protect its homeless population, it ought to dedicate more resources to policing encampments rather than wasting city funds on expensive sweeps. Although the city has since November increased the number of shelter beds available—in part by opening a new shelter for asylum seekers and in part by expanding existing shelters’ capacity—the fact remains that there are simply not enough beds for every person on the street. Even with the substantial improvements made in bed availability, large encampments have persisted. On January 2, the same day a large encampment near Casco Bay Bridge was forcibly cleared, official estimates reported 121 tents throughout the city and only 86 open beds at the Homeless Services Center. These statistics alone are enough to cast doubt on the notion that every encamped person can simply find a shelter bed, but they become even more troubling when one considers that not every encamped person is willing to accept open beds: people do not want to abandon their belongings, they do not want to leave the city’s center, and they do not want to part with partners and pets. Dion is attempting to reduce some of these barriers—pushing back shelter curfews, for example—but barriers remain. Removing the unhoused from encampments cannot compel them into shelters when there simply is not sufficient shelter available. Those without options will simply camp elsewhere and eventually, as experience proves, create new encampments. If people had better options, they would not be spending nights outside during Maine’s winter months.
The only way to prevent deaths from exposure, fires, and overdoses, the only way to keep sites clean and free of health hazards, is to devote city resources to policing, monitoring, and cleaning encampments—something officials have thus far been loath to do. Support social workers in finding encamped persons housing. Coordinate campaigns to provide encamped persons with donated winter gear and blankets. Stop destroying shelters and calling it compassion.
Some readers shall undoubtedly question why I decided to place these pleas in the Bowdoin Orient instead of the Portland Press Herald. Let me conclude, then, by saying this: we all, at least temporarily, live but 30 minutes away from these problems; and we are more than capable of making our voices heard. If the city schedules additional clearings, remember an Amtrak ticket to Portland costs only $4.
Danny Haskell is a member of the Class of 2024.