SOUTH PORTLAND — For the transient people who lived behind Mallside Plaza, the hidden encampment offered the necessities: access to food, modest shelter, a stream for water, and the company of like-minded people.

For city officials and the property owner, the camp was unhealthy, unsafe and an environmental threat to the Long Creek watershed.

On Wednesday, crews used hooked poles and an excavator to pile up cardboard boxes and other items that the homeless had used. The fire department then set the pile ablaze.

“It just becomes a safety concern, not to mention the health risk and everything else,” said Joe Lydon, property manager for Mallside Plaza, which houses a Dollar Store, a restaurant, and stores that sell mattresses, shoes and guitars.

Authorities said it was impossible to know exactly how many people lived in the encampment at any time. There were perhaps half-a-dozen fairly sturdy cardboard structures clustered in the area, and a few more modest sleeping spots, Lydon said.

“It was pretty elaborate,” said Lydon, who discovered the encampment about 2½ months ago.

Advocates for the homeless and South Portland’s General Assistance director said they were unaware of the camp, but it’s not unusual for small groups of people who sleep outdoors to congregate for security and companionship.

“It also could be the way they’ve existed for quite some time. They create relationships, quite honestly, that are similar to families,” said Kathleen Babeu, the General Assistance director. Few of them contact the city for services or support.

Babeu said she isn’t aware of any other places in the city where homeless people are camping.

Dislodging an encampment can create an opportunity to convince those who are sleeping outdoors to consider other options and services, said Mark Swann, executive director of Preble Street, a social services agency in Portland that works with poor people.

“When private landowners are clearing out a space, it’s great if we know about it in advance,” he said. “We can and do try to take advantage of that situation, reaching out to people who are affected, trying to bring them inside.”

Swann said he didn’t know that the encampment would be cleared on Wednesday, or that it even existed, and he doesn’t know where the people who lived there will go, although he hopes that some will consider permanent housing.

SUPPLIES SCAVENGED FROM MALL AREA

Lydon, the property manager, said that when he explored the camp, he found people were making use of the plentiful supplies in the Maine Mall area, fashioning large building blocks by filling cardboard boxes with flattened cardboard boxes, stacking them to make shelters and covering them with cardboard sheets coated with wax. The floors of the structures were wooden pallets.

They scavenged food from the trash bin behind the plaza’s Super Great Wall Buffet restaurant. Detritus in one area showed that single-serving containers of cereal also were popular, with dozens of empty containers scattered around one portion of the site.

There was a portable toilet in the area, although evidence indicated it wasn’t always used.

The location of the encampment, behind the plaza in an area that’s rarely visited and out of sight of nearby businesses and customers, made it easy for its residents to get in and out without drawing attention.

A man who stood in front of the plaza Wednesday said he is homeless but was unaware of the camp’s presence.

‘THE GROSSEST THING I’VE EVER SEEN’

Police in Tyvex suits and workers with long, hooked poles descended on the camp Wednesday, finding lots of trash, large rats and rotten food infested with maggots.

“It’s probably the grossest thing I’ve ever seen,” said James Keenan, who works for a contractor hired for the job.

No campers were at the site when the operation started early Wednesday. They apparently had found out that the end was near, Lydon said. Where once there had been cardboard structures, there were just flattened piles of cardboard.

He said some preparatory work done before Wednesday might have tipped them off.

David Thomes, operations manager for South Portland’s Department of Water Resource Protection, said the cleanup will likely cost less than $10,000. It is part of a years-long effort to rehabilitate Long Creek, which winds throughout the mall area. That effort so far has consisted largely of installing stormwater infrastructure.

Once the pile of debris was burned and had cooled, the ashes were hauled away to a secure landfill. Berms had been built to keep the runoff from entering the nearby creek.

“All the pollution that was next to the creek, what we were trying to do is have everything cleaned up,” Thomes said.

Crews will regrade and plant new vegetation in the area, and erect a silt fence to protect the stream.

USING, OR AVOIDING, SHELTERS

According to figures from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, 3,016 people were counted as homeless in Maine in 2013, based on an annual one-night survey designed to provide a snapshot of the nation’s homeless population.

Babeu, South Portland’s General Assistance director, said the count did not include South Portland because when it was done, no one had presented themselves as homeless at the General Assistance office. Typically, people contact the office before they become homeless and the city works with them to keep them in shelter, she said.

South Portland doesn’t have its own emergency shelter but has an arrangement with Portland’s family shelter for short-term emergency housing.

Portland typically has 400 to 500 people seeking emergency shelter on any night. About 240 were at the city’s shelter for adults Tuesday night.

Swann, the director of Preble Street, said advocates for the homeless know of people sleeping outdoors year-round.

“One of the reasons is, people are trying to stay off the radar screen and don’t want to get involved in General Assistance or welfare programs and are just trying to isolate themselves,” he said. “People form small communities to support each other, keep each other safe, share the little that they have. The most generous people I’ve ever met in my life are people who are struggling with homelessness and hunger and chemical addiction, helping each other out, looking out for their brother and sister.”

He said another reason people stay outdoors is because Portland’s shelters are often so crowded that people sleep on the floor of the soup kitchen. When that space fills up, they move to office space that’s ill-suited for a shelter.

David Hench can be contacted at 791-6327 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: @Mainehenchman