PORTLAND — The city is seeing record numbers of homeless people seeking shelter, so it was no surprise Wednesday night when survey teams found multiple campsites scattered across the city.
“We have never found so many campsites in all the years we’ve been doing this,” said Josh O’Brien, director of the city’s Oxford Street Shelter, on Wednesday night. “It is a very different experience for us.”
O’Brien led one of six survey teams that fanned out across the city, looking for people without shelter.
The teams interviewed anyone who was willing to participate in the survey.
The responses will be incorporated into Portland’s annual Point in Time survey — a census of people who are homeless.
The federal Department of Housing and Urban Development requires all states to complete the annual census. HUD gives Portland about $3.1 million a year for employment assistance, job training and emergency shelters.
The city was one of several municipalities, counties and private organizations across Maine that participated in the survey.
The last survey, conducted on Jan. 25, 2012, showed that 1,050 people were homeless in Maine on that night, according to figures released by the Maine State Housing Authority.
On Wednesday night, Portland’s survey began at the Oxford Street Shelter.
The teams were assigned to search Commercial Street, near the Casco Bay Bridge; Deering Oaks; land off Brighton Avenue near the Barron Center; the area behind the Cumberland County Jail; the Eastern Promenade; and the area near the ferry terminal off Commercial Street.
Mayor Michael Brennan told the teams that the survey results will help the city shape its programs to better serve its homeless population.
“I’m hopeful that at some point in the future we won’t have to do this type of survey again,” Brennan said, because homelessness will be eliminated.
But now, the city is seeing record numbers of homeless people seeking shelter, said Douglas Gardner, director of Portland’s Health and Human Services Department.
Gardner said city shelters averaged 450 people a night in December — up from 400 people a night the previous December.
“It’s not a threshold we were pleased about crossing,” Gardner said.
“It’s far beyond what we anticipated.”
During the census, O’Brien led his team to a paved walkway beneath the Casco Bay Bridge. With him were Angela Havlin from the Oxford Street Shelter, Bill Burney, the Maine field office director for HUD, and Alicia Martinez, a volunteer.
The team scrambled up a hill strewn with rocks and rubble. Under the bridge’s steel girders they found evidence of an encampment, home to two, possibly three, homeless people.
O’Brien recognized blankets from the Oxford Street Shelter and speculated that the campers were likely having dinner at a soup kitchen.
Their sleeping bags and chairs were drenched in Wednesday night’s rain.
The team moved along Commercial Street to a massive cavern that once was a rail tunnel.
In the distance, they saw a solitary light from a cigarette and slight movement in the dark.
As they moved closer, they met Troy, sitting on a sofa straddling abandoned railroad tracks.
O’Brien apologized for encroaching into his living space and asked the man if he needed anything.
O’Brien promised to return with food and blankets — Troy later declined an invitation to spend the night at Oxford Street.
His temporary home included a flat wooden board where he could rest his feet, and a single chair — presumably for visitors.
Troy puffed on a cigarette as Havlin probed him for information.
“I’m from a working-class family that fell on hard times,” said the man, who told the team he is 39 and grew up in South Hiram.
He said his friends have turned on him because he is homeless, a situation that has made him feel like an “outcast.”
O’Brien’s team walked across the street to the waterfront side of Commercial Street and found another campsite.
They encountered three men, each with his own tent and apparently well supplied with food and blankets.
One of the men was on crutches, with one leg in a cast.
Another said he refuses to stay in a shelter because he fears for his safety.
A third said the shelter is too crowded.
Another survey team reported finding multiple campsites off Brighton Avenue, near the city’s Barron Center.
O’Brien said wasn’t surprised by the number of people who are homeless and unwilling to stay in a shelter. “When the shelters are this full, it can be difficult for a lot of people,” he said. “At least out here, they have their own place and some peace of mind.”
Staff Writer Dennis Hoey can be contacted at 791-6365 or at:
This story was updated at 3:37 p.m. January 31st, 2013 in order to correct the order of names listed in the photo caption.