April 22, 2013

For Portland's homeless, onward to the next encampment

Following a fatal tent fire, a crackdown on the West End's homeless has many moving to other parts of Portland.

By David Hench dhench@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

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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

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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.

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Not far away, there is typically a cluster of used toilet tissue marking where residents relieve themselves. Some work hard to avoid detection, carrying their belongings, including shelter, and carrying out their trash. In some areas, charred sticks show where a small fire burned. One of the sites near the railroad land shows where a fire got out of control and burned a nearby birch tree.

One of the problems with living outside is safety.

Arbo said Barbour's death resonated with him. One winter when he first arrived in Portland several years ago, he and his girlfriend slept in an abandoned apartment building. At night, in the bitter cold, they huddled in a closet, hoarding the miniscule heat given off by a candle.

Another winter, they slept in a tent to the side of the railroad tracks. Once it snowed, the tent was hidden from view and the layer of snow served as an insulator, making it tolerable inside.

"Nobody chooses to die alone in a tent in the cold," Arbo said. "I just don't see how people get forgotten."

Portland firefighters recently distributed battery-operated lamps, encouraging those who live outside to use them instead of open flames for light. They also distributed safety tips for outdoor fires.

At least the risk of fire drops as the temperatures go up at this time of year.

Sometimes, a camp will grow in numbers because homeless people gravitate to a good spot. But it also provides a measure of security.

"When somebody in the homeless community gets assaulted, they're either outnumbered or it's one person alone, there's no watching eyes," Lynch said. "Even in the outskirts (of the city), people tend to group together."

People tend to gravitate to people with similar issues, she said. Those who wrestle with substance abuse might opt for people with the same affliction.

"People who may have mental health issues and not be substance abusers, they tend to understand each other," Lynch said.

There's a measure of support having people nearby.

"When I was camping out, it was a community," said Amanda Wagner, who now has a place to stay. "When it came to like food or problems with your tent, people would help out."

Josh O'Brien, who runs Portland's Oxford Street Shelter, said that after Barbour's death, many people who have historically declined city help did make contact with counselors.

"To be homeless in Portland or anywhere is to be pretty vulnerable in their everyday life," he said. "That vulnerability is enhanced when something like that happens."

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Clients report that places where people can camp in the city without drawing attention are becoming harder to find.

The railroad land was desirable. It was close to downtown, where the homeless can visit soup kitchens, the day shelter at Preble Street or the Public Library. For some, it was near work on the waterfront. There were no neighbors to speak of, though encountering the railroad police could lead to a no-trespass order.

The railroad police did not respond to a request for an interview.

Some camps are out past Morrill's Corner or near the river on Riverside Street.

Jaime Parker, trail manager for Portland Trails, said he sees twice as many tents as he did in recent years, and that has led to complaints from users of the trails.

"We're having some more problems as far as litter, debris and substance abuse," he said. "Sometimes people kind of fear for their safety, if they're out with their kids or a woman jogging alone."

"If somebody's leaving a tremendous amount of trash around, or like harassing everybody, or causing any problems, we'll take whatever action we need to as a landowner. We're not actively chasing people out of the woods," Parker said. "We generally have a live and let live attitude. ... We also feel for people's plights out there."

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Additional Photos

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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.

  


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