If you follow the news, you’ve probably read a lot about my neighborhood, West Bayside, lately.

Much of it has been good. Cranes and structural steel are visible all over the place. Projects that have languished for years appear to be moving forward. New projects are being announced.

More disappointing is the news that extraordinary law enforcement resources have been needed to manage a problem centered in my neighborhood: Portland’s intractable homelessness and the associated vagrancy and antisocial behavior.

For many people, my neighborhood is what you see while driving downtown or riding home on the bus. But if you spend some time here, you’ll find a neighborhood with a level of diversity that only a few places in America can match.

Here, nationally known restaurants sit down the street from a soup kitchen, and a mosque is a couple of blocks away from an evangelical church. Some people live here part time and leave in the winter, and others are happy to have a housing subsidy and a roof over their head. There are plenty of folks in the middle, too.

There are folks from all over the world who have come to get a fresh start, and old-timers who’ve worked hard and are spending their later years enjoying their views of Back Cove.


It’s also a place where people come for help. Bayside is home to Portland’s General Assistance office, along with Goodwill Workforce Solutions and casual labor offices. Sweetser has offices here, as does Maine Behavioral Health.

Health Care for the Homeless is located here, and a teaching clinic for Tufts students at Maine Medical Center is due to open soon. Freedom House conducts its counseling activities here and the Salvation Army has been a presence for years. People get the help they need and, hopefully, move on with their lives.

Bayside is home to the city-run Family Shelter and Oxford Street Shelter, along with an overflow shelter, soup kitchen and dayroom at Preble Street. Typically, well over 200 people are housed each night at the Oxford Street and Preble Street shelters. There is the teen shelter as well.

Add in almost 40 more at the Milestone shelter on India Street and at least 100 unsheltered individuals who sleep in encampments all over town, and the numbers are staggering. Per 10,000 residents, these numbers exceed those of places like San Francisco, and are among the highest in the nation.

Oxford Street and Preble Street are low-barrier shelters, which means that virtually anyone who isn’t threatening to someone else and doesn’t have weapons or syringes is allowed to stay at the shelters. And while drinking and drug abuse are not allowed on the shelter premises, once you are off the property, anything goes.

It’s easy to obtain drugs in the area, and high-alcohol beer is readily available. Opiates get most of the headlines, but drugs like spice (a type of synthetic marijuana that causes psychotic effects) are new, constantly changing and problematic for law enforcement and EMS workers.


Earlier this year, the city launched Operation Bayside, a comprehensive attempt to bring better lighting, cleaner streets and a greater police presence to the neighborhood. Overall, it has been a little quieter, especially when the police are around. When they’re not, it’s back to hanging on street corners, layouts, fights and trash.

Our shelters are too small, and the facilities’ low-barrier policy sends an “anything goes” message to consumers. We need to rethink how we provide services, who we provide them to and how they affect the surrounding neighborhood. Residents shouldn’t have to constantly call the police, clean up trash or have their yards and gardens used as latrines.

Service providers (the city included) need to own the problems they have created. The city needs to rethink zoning regulations that confine these services to a small geographic area. Other communities and the state need to do their part.

Historically, only about a third of shelter occupants are Portland residents. Maybe we should bill other communities. Maybe one of those empty motels by “Tent City” could be remodeled into single-room occupancy buildings.

I don’t know the answer, but I do know that it’s time for some of the multimillion-dollar government and private agencies serving the homeless to acknowledge that only a fraction of folks are truly getting the help they need.

Every individual is worthy of our attention and support. There are people who come from circumstances we can’t ever imagine. But crowding 300 or 400 people together and not genuinely engaging them, not having expectations of them, only creates chaos. It’s time for better solutions.

— Special to the Press Herald

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