Residents of a Portland homeless encampment known as “Tent City” are packing up and trying to figure out their next move after police gave them until month’s end to vacate the property.
More than two dozen homeless individuals – including at least one family with a small child – have been tenting in a trash-strewn wooded grove behind a strip mall on Brighton Avenue, some for as long as 2½ years. But while most drivers on Route 25 and the Maine Turnpike are likely unaware of the sprawling encampment’s presence in the trees, Portland police said they have responded to an increasing number of incidents in Tent City in recent months, including incidents of domestic violence, arson and individuals with outstanding warrants.
After recently being informed of the situation, the property owners asked police to remove the encampment.
Police on Wednesday issued a formal “No Trespass Notice” that requires the property’s homeless occupants to remove themselves and all belongings by Aug. 31 under threat of arrest. Meanwhile, police have been working with teams from Preble Street, the nonprofit social services agency, that are trying to help individuals connect with services available to the city’s poor, including emergency shelters.
“We try to address these things in the most compassionate way possible, recognizing that homelessness is not a decision that people make,” Portland Assistant Police Chief Vernon Malloch said Thursday afternoon. “We just know the situation right now is intolerable and can’t continue.”
Several residents of Tent City, which also is known by some as Pine Tree Camp, were unsure where they’d end up next but suggested they’re not headed to one of the city’s homeless shelters.
“We’re not bothering anybody, so why are (police) bothering us? Why can’t you leave us in peace until we can find permanent places?” said Tricia Leavitt, 31, who lives in a large tent decked out with chairs, tables, mattresses and other furnishings. “I’d rather sleep in a tent than deal with bedbugs (in the shelter). If I’m going to live with bugs, I’m going to live outside.”
MANY CHOOSE TO LIVE OUTSIDE
Bedbugs, lice, scabies and the “drama” of crowded shelters came up repeatedly on Wednesday during interviews with more than a half dozen of the homeless men and women living in the woods behind Lowe’s and Jo-Ann Fabrics. While no one said they chose to be homeless, every person said they chose to live outside during Maine’s milder months – and sometimes during the not-so-mild months – rather than stay in a shelter. Some even said they have received Section 8 housing vouchers but have been unable to find housing because landlords turn them away in the hyper-competitive rental market.
Residents described a community of sorts, where people look out for one another and stay out of trouble except for a few “bad apples” who have drawn police to their encampment.
“We all get along. We do puzzles, we play games,” said a man named Brian who declined to give his last name because he didn’t want to upset family members living in the area. “I don’t want to go back into the system and that is what they want us to do. I don’t want to be around all of the people and the drama.”
Portland’s shelter system has often struggled in recent years to keep up with demand, although shelter usage usually drops during warmer months. The city’s family shelter has been stretched beyond its capacity this summer by a combination of a surge in immigrant families seeking asylum in the United States and Portland’s housing crunch.
A brief visit to part of Tent City this week illustrated why police and the property owners are concerned about the situation in the woods. Empty water, soda and beer containers were strewn about the site as well as gathered in bags and old shopping carts. Broken pallets, chairs, umbrellas and other household goods – including a toilet filled with leaves – littered the site. But there also were signs of the residents’ attempts to make their shelters more homelike, such as the decorations hung from tents, and tarps intended to keep the rain off.
Leavitt, who has been living on the site for the past several months, apologized for the mess but said people are trying to sort through their belongings ahead of the eviction.
“If they gave us a trash Dumpster, we would clean up everything,” said Corey Light, 23, who has lived in Tent City off and on for more than two years.
CONCERNS FOR WELFARE OF A CHILD
Rather than one large community, Tent City is actually a cluster of smaller encampments separated by woods and well-worn paths. Some are cleaner and relatively well-kept, even featuring structures made of wood. But Malloch said police were concerned about the unsanitary conditions in the encampment.
Malloch said the presence of a young child in the camp also was concerning, which is why staff from the Department of Health and Human Services are now involved. Generally speaking, there is no crime being committed if a child is still being well cared for and remains healthy, Malloch said. But the situation is not “preferable.”
“I think everyone’s concern is for the welfare of the child,” Malloch said. “The adults are making this decision (to live outside) for themselves. The child is not making that decision.”
‘THIS YEAR, THE SITE IS EVEN BIGGER’
The family could not be found during visits to the camp this week.
City officials said the land where Tent City is located is owned by Emery-Waterhouse Co., which is located across Rand Avenue, and the Inn at Portland, which is adjacent to the site. Representatives from the two companies could not be reached for comment Thursday.
The property owners apparently were unaware of the encampment until notified by police this year.
Last year, police worked with Preble Street’s outreach team to try to move people from the camp into more permanent housing.
“This year, the site is even bigger and we are seeing more problems, and now we are going to take the next step to remove people,” Malloch said. After talking with those living in Tent City and Preble Street workers, the police department pushed back the move-out date from Aug. 22 to Aug. 31.
“We can appreciate what they are saying about which conditions they prefer and find more tolerable, but ultimately we would like to see them work with the outreach workers to find permanent housing,” Malloch said.
Back at Tent City, Leavitt and others said they were still trying to figure out where they will be on Sept. 1. Some suggested they will just find another patch of woods out of sight of police. Others were once again talking with social services agencies in hopes of finding placement somewhere other than a shelter.
“We are basically good people in a bad spot and we don’t deserve this,” Leavitt said.
Kevin Miller can be contacted at 791-6312 or at: