Wednesday, March 12, 2014
When Brian Barbour perished in a tent fire in the woods off West Commercial Street earlier this month, some among the city's West End homeless population held a ceremony to mark his passing.
A campsite in the woods along West Commercial Street, just behind Danforth Street, has been cleared, its former denizens displaced.
Photos by Gabe Souza/Staff Photographer
David Belibeau pours himself a beer in the woods of West Commercial Street, where homeless camps are being cleared after a man perished in a tent fire earlier this month.
But there already was another ritual under way. The railroad police were stepping up efforts to clear out the homeless encampment that had grown up between West Commercial Street and the Fore River.
Some who had camped among the network of rough trails a short walk from the waterfront already had moved their gear. Others were issued no-trespassing orders in the days after the fire, or -- if they had already been warned -- a court summons.
The crackdown led people to other parts of town, wooded spots off outer Congress Street, the promenades at either end of the peninsula or behind Evergreen Cemetery. Tents sprang up alongside part of the Portland trails network.
Russ Arbo, who has spent time camping outside but right now sleeps on a friend's couch, said the short-term impact is that people move farther away from the downtown.
"They'll move more to the outskirts of town where people won't see the suffering so they won't pay as much attention to them," Arbo said.
Advocates, landowners and homeless people themselves say the number of people camping has grown dramatically in the past few years, and with good weather arriving the number is expected to rebound after dropping off during the winter months.
And now, with Portland officials handing out notices requiring people who use the city's homeless shelters to get housing counseling, that number may grow faster.
"Now there are no beds," said Peggy Lynch, an outreach worker with Preble Street, the nonprofit group that helps the poor in the city. "There are people who seek shelter who can't get that shelter anymore."
For those with nowhere else to stay, camping has advantages over the city shelters. There is independence, nobody saying when to go to bed, when to wake up and when to shower.
A campsite doesn't care whether someone has been drinking or engaged in behavior, criminal or otherwise, that might bar him from the shelter.
Couples can stay together in a tent but are separated at the city shelters.
People with dogs typically can't bring them into the shelter.
For Russ Lamb, it's a matter of security.
Lamb avoids shelters -- or as he calls them, "the mission" -- because he said his possessions are too valuable to him. He points to the radio and MP3 player he is charging at the city's public library and says he has a CD player in his backpack.
Lamb, sporting a long gray moustache and a backpack with a protruding fishing pole, said last week he had just arrived in Portland. He travels across the country, never staying long in one place. When he camps, he camps alone. He doesn't want other people's behavior -- particularly if it draws police -- to reflect on him.
Lamb expects that the land off West Commercial Street will get cleared out -- though lots of trash will be left behind, further irritating the landowners. Then people will gradually return to the large swath of woods -- close to downtown services and people, but remote enough that they are usually left alone.
They will return in ones and twos, after dark, and when they don't get rousted, others will follow, he said.
Homeless camps often don't look like such. Sometimes there are one- or two-person dome tents, with a cinderblock or 5-gallon joint compound bucket serving as a stool. In other cases, there is simply a plastic tarp draped over a line, some clothing or linens scattered in the vicinity.
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An unidentified man with little left to lose changes his socks after sleeping underneath the Casco Bay Bridge last Thursday. Declining to be interviewed, he disappeared down a nearby trail.