On March 18, in an article headlined “Mainers with no homes have greater risk, far fewer options to avoid virus,” Staff Writer Randy Billings outlined the outsize risk that homeless members of our community face when confronted with the threat of the coronavirus.

Billings described Preble Street’s recommendations that the city open up three additional shelters, including the Expo, to allow the homeless to achieve the social distancing that is one of the best ways to prevent disease transmission.

Billings goes on to report that “one city official dismissed the recommendations, especially opening the Portland Expo as a shelter, saying they are not workable.” When it was pointed out that the city had opened the Expo to house asylum seekers, City Hall Communications Director Jessica Grondin said that (in Billings’ words) “the current situation is different and the city is unable to staff the Expo or other spaces as emergency shelters.”

Fast forward two weeks later, and in the face of the first confirmed case of coronavirus at Oxford Street Shelter, the city quickly converted the Expo into a quarantine site for those exposed to the infected individual.

But the interesting thing about this is how the city is spinning the situation. At an emergency online council meeting Wednesday, the talk was all about the heroic efforts of the city shelter staff, and not about the failure of the city administration to anticipate an inevitable disaster in this vulnerable community. It’s a bit like the smoke and mirrors used by politicians who have authorized foreign wars on specious grounds and yet claim to “support the troops.”

And then we have the article on the front page of Thursday’s Press Herald. It’s clear from Staff Writer Kelley Bouchard’s reporting that city officials are focusing on demonizing the homeless, not taking responsibility for their delay in opening the quarantine shelter. By the third paragraph, City Manager Jon Jennings is quoted as saying, “We’re having a very difficult time in Bayside.”

He goes on to cite allegations of rampant open-air drug use in the neighborhood, echoed by City Councilor Kim Cook in chilling language: “It’s a bastion of lawlessness that has just taken over. We have to do something … to restore order.”

Cook does not represent the Bayside neighborhood, but rather the neighborhood where the new shelter is slated to be built. As such she has a vested interest in painting the homeless as a bunch of marauding criminals threatening the safety of local citizens. After all, if enough folks buy that narrative, maybe next time she puts forth an amendment at a council meeting to build a grossly inadequate shelter and deny services to those not sleeping there (as she did in February), perhaps a majority of councilors will be persuaded to vote in support.

This is not the first time the city has used this tactic to change the narrative of the discussion. After a 50 percent uptick in criminal trespass orders (kicking people out of the shelter for up to a year) from the previous year was reported last November, Jennings said it was because of an increase in violent confrontations fueled by more methamphetamine use in the community.

So criminal trespass orders have increased, perhaps so that the numbers using the shelter will diminish and allow an inadequately sized shelter to be built on the outskirts. No, it’s not that, it’s meth-heads taking over Bayside!

So, the city didn’t listen to the advice of people who are experts in their field and anticipate the need for more shelters to enforce social distancing and ended up having to be reactive. No, it’s the lawlessness of the homeless drug addicts in Bayside!

If you demonize an entire population based on the actions of a few, it’s easy to manipulate public sentiment against them. But the truth is never so simplistic. And I ask us all to remember when we look at people who are struggling, “there, but for the grace of God, go I.”

As for me, I’m proud to be a purveyor of, as Jennings referred to it Wednesday, “some of the nonsense that we have seen over the years from advocates and others.” Yeah, we’re in it for the long haul.


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