Downtown business owners and residents told the Portland City Council on Wednesday night that problems caused by aggressive panhandlers, mentally ill people and individuals under the influence of drugs or alcohol have reached crisis proportions, and that steps must be taken quickly to preserve the vibrant atmosphere that has made Maine’s largest city a popular destination for tourists and new businesses.

Councilors said that although mental illness, substance abuse and homelessness have been problems in Portland since the state began closing mental health institutions in the 1980s – putting people with severe mental health issues on the streets – the city will need help from the community and the state to ensure that members of society’s most vulnerable population get the help and services they need.

Many of those people come to Portland, which has developed a reputation for providing shelter and services to those in need.

“We’ve heard some very powerful testimony tonight,” said Councilor Nicholas Mavodones, who also is operations manager of the Casco Bay Lines ferry service on the city’s waterfront. Mavodones said he is acutely aware of the problem because of the homeless and destitute people who come to the ferry terminal every day.

“It’s an issue that, frankly, the Portland City Council can’t solve on its own,” he said.

Mavodones, other councilors and community members who attended a two-hour public forum Wednesday night at City Hall said the time has come to form a community coalition composed of public officials, social service providers, residents and business owners to work on a solution.

Although most of those who attended the forum seemed to agree that the problem of panhandlers accosting people who live, work and visit downtown is not new, there also was consensus that it has become more severe in recent years.

Portland Downtown, an organization representing more than 600 business and property owners, recently concluded a monthslong study about ways to address panhandling, which the nonprofit says has become more aggressive. It has recommended that the city strengthen an existing law that prohibits aggressive panhandling, and that visitors be educated about not giving money to panhandlers.

Portland Downtown also supports a new city program that offers panhandlers wages for cleaning up parks and public spaces.

Councilor Jill Duson said the testimony provided Wednesday was “a lot to absorb” and she referred to the situation as a crisis. But “I appreciate people coming out. The solutions are not obvious,” she said.

Wednesday’s forum was prompted by an incident in late July in Monument Square. Michaela McVetty, owner of Sisters Gourmet Deli, posted online a surveillance video of a man who engaged in a 10-minute, obscenity-laced tirade with her female employees. The video got tens of thousands of views.

Warning: Video contains graphic language.

The city scheduled the forum after McVetty met with Mayor Ethan Strimling and City Manager Jon Jennings.

McVetty told the council Wednesday night that she has seen people shooting up drugs in Monument Square and passed out on park benches.

“I love Portland, but it never used to be this way,” she said.

Thomas Tallarico, a teacher at Portland High School, is worried about the safety of students who have to park their cars in Bayside and walk near the Oxford Street Shelter or the Preble Street resource center to get to classes, which begin next Wednesday. Preble Street provides meals and shelter to homeless people and others.

“I’ve been appalled at the activities I’ve seen going on there. They are like walking zombies,” Tallarico told the council. He called the neighborhood a “battle zone” and “maze of madness.”

“It is going to take a community effort to find a solution,” he said.

Rick Porter lives with his 13-year-old son in an apartment that overlooks Monument Square.

“I’ve seen things change (in the downtown) over the past eight years and it’s scary,” said Porter, a commercial fisherman. He has found homeless people sleeping on the floor in the hallway outside his apartment and worries about his son’s safety.

“We all love this city and we all need to be compassionate, but if we don’t stop this, we are going to lose what we have,” Porter said.

Steve Bromage, executive director of the Maine Historical Society, at 489 Congress St., said the “scary, intimidating” behavior he has witnessed have raised concerns about the safety of his 25 employees and the 15,000 people who annually visit the society’s 1-acre campus across from Monument Square and tour the Longfellow House, the childhood home of 19th-century poet Henry Wadsworth-Longfellow.

He said one patron was mugged on a Thursday morning, and a 20-year tenant in the building left in large part because of safety concerns.

“This is an issue that is affecting the health of our city. We need to take this on with a sense of urgency,” Bromage told the council.

Mark Swann, executive director of Preble Street, called on the city and state to work together to fund the services needed to reach the homeless, mentally ill, and people addicted to drugs and alcohol.

He said 27 people have overdosed on drugs at Preble Street this year. Swann said all of those people tried unsuccessfully to get into drug-treatment programs. Most were turned away because they didn’t have MaineCare insurance.

“Homeless shelters, as well as jails all over this country, are filled with people who shouldn’t be there,” Swann said. “We have become a de facto mental illness facility.”

Although no decisions were made Wednesday night, Strimling vowed that the city will not give up on finding solutions to the problems faced by downtown business owners.

“I can promise you that this won’t be the last conversation that we have about this issue,” he said.

Dennis Hoey can be contacted at 791-6365 or at:

[email protected]

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CORRECTION: This story was updated at 12:46 p.m. on Aug. 24, 2017, to clarify that a tenant in the Maine Historical Society building left because of safety concerns.