Dozens of people planned to spend the night sleeping on the steps of Portland City Hall to drive home the point that homeless people in Maine’s largest city need access to safe and affordable housing during the COVID-19 pandemic and beyond.

“We wanted to make homelessness a reality,” said Jess Falero, who has been homeless on and off for the past five years. Falero, 23, is now living in Florence House. “We want to change the experience around homelessness. We are asking that people see us in a different light. And we want to be heard and not dismissed.”

Wednesday night’s “sleep out” drew about 60 homeless Portlanders, people struggling to pay their rent and community members who want city and state leaders to do something about homelessness.

Organizers of the sleep out issued a statement before it began Wednesday afternoon.

“Portland’s housing crisis and the perceived scarcity of space for people to call a home existed long before the pandemic brought it to the city’s attention,” the organizers said in a written statement before the event. They asked local leaders to consider the impact of the recent closure of a day shelter operated by the nonprofit Preble Street because of coronavirus risks. That closure, along with restrictions at the city’s library and other public spaces, has left those without homes seeking other places to go.

Lisa Thompson, 40, became homeless for the first time in her life in December after a relationship failed. She hopes the sleep out will force the city to take notice.

“Homeless people are not going to disappear,” she said. “Preble Street was the hub for the homeless. Now it’s gone. We want to send the message that there are people who are needy and people who are getting desperate.”

Michelle Arcand of Portland helped get the word out regarding Wednesday’s sleep out. She said the closure of the USM Wellness Center and the Preble Street soup kitchen have made life even more difficult for a vulnerable, isolated population trying to cope with the COVID-19 pandemic. She said Preble Street provided basic human needs to hundreds of people.

Falero, Thompson and Arcand said the closure of the Preble Street Soup Kitchen forced many homeless clients to relocate to other places such as Deering Oaks. Preble Street also erected a fence around its courtyard.

On Wednesday night, about 40 people were camped out at Deering Oaks on a grassy strip at Park and Forest avenues, across the street from the Portland Post Office. Some people had pillows, while others had sleeping bags and lawn chairs. There were no tents except for one canopy used as shelter from the sun.

There were bags of trash. Most were contained, but a flock of seagulls had pecked through a couple of bags spilling the contents on the lawn. People laid sprawled across lawns and even sidewalks.

Shortly before the gathering at City Hall, the city released a statement in response to complaints about homeless people gathering in Deering Oaks and criticism from advocates.

Sarah Nouhan, who is homeless and living in Portland, holds a sign outside Portland City Hall as part of Wednesday’s “sleep out.” Nouhan said she sleeps “wherever I can outdoors without the cops harassing me.” She said she has been cited for trespassing while camping in Deering Oaks. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

“The uptick in complaints, and rise in activity in Deering Oaks park, coincides with the COVID-related closures of on-site operations at the Preble Street Resource Center, the Portland Public Library and other local assets previously available to people during the daytime,” spokeswoman Jessica Grondin said.

Preble Street had been delivering meals to people in the park as part of its efforts to get food to people who could no longer come into its soup kitchen, but it stopped this week after complaints from residents prompted the city to tell the agency that it didn’t have the proper permits.

Grondin said the complaints were focused on behaviors, such as drug use, and not on the presence of homeless people in the park. She could not say how many complaints the city received.

Grondin said the city will be providing “additional outreach” in the park to connect people with available resources and shelter. Staff at city shelters and the Milestone Recovery shelter will encourage their guests to stay in those shelters during the day, and additional shaded space will be provided at the Oxford Street Shelter.

Portland is currently operating three shelters – the Oxford Street Shelter, a temporary shelter at the Portland Exposition Building and a family shelter. The shelter at the Expo opened in response to the pandemic. The city also is housing as many as 200 people in local hotels.

Preble Street also operated an emergency shelter in a gym owned by the University of Southern Maine, but that space closed this month because the school needed to prepare it for the fall semester. Grondin said the Expo and the Oxford Street Shelter are at 50 percent capacity even after they absorbed guests who were staying at the gym.

Protest signs lie on the steps and plaza at Portland City Hall on Wednesday evening. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Preble Street closed its busy soup kitchen dining room and day shelter when the pandemic hit. It has been cooking meals and delivering them to shelters and other sites around the city to reduce the risk of coronavirus transmission.

The nonprofit stopped providing takeout meals at its soup kitchen on July 13, and Grondin said that appears to be when gatherings at Deering Oaks began generating complaints.

Grondin said the city notified Preble Street on Friday that a permit is needed to use public property to distribute meals, and the nonprofit has agreed to stop delivering meals to people there in the meantime. The city did not shut down meal deliveries, and supports the efforts to provide food to people who rely on it, Grondin said.

With the courtyard of Preble Street closed off, many of Portland’s homeless residents are congregating in Deering Oaks along Forest Avenue. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

“While those discussions were ongoing, Preble Street was not barred by the city from operating its food delivery services. Rather, Preble Street continues to offer its food delivery program at eight other locations while the terms of the license agreement are finalized,” she said.

“Any time someone seeks to use public property, we have to have some sort of agreement or permit,” Grondin said. “It’s not meant to be punitive. It’s meant so we are aware of who is in our public spaces.”

Preble Street’s executive director, Mark Swann, said he was perplexed by the cease-and-desist order he received from the Parks Department on Friday because the plans to provide meals and ground-level outreach to people in Deering Oaks and any other place unsheltered people were living was made in conjunction with the city’s Public Health Department.

Swann said the cease-and-desist order referenced a permitting process required for marches or events held on public property.

The outreach efforts, Swann said, involved a van that was parked briefly on a public street to deliver prepackaged meals. Social workers used the opportunity to talk with people in the park and help them however they needed it. In one short span, Swann said, a social worker revived someone from a drug overdose with a dose of Narcan; assisted two women to reach domestic violence services they needed, and a social worker helped a third person keep a housing voucher they were in peril of losing. Preble Street staff also assisted getting four people emergency medical care.

He said the program follows federal guidelines from the departments of Housing and Urban Development and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on how to best assist unsheltered people during the pandemic, and should not have come as a surprise to city leaders.

Richard Cox, who was previously homeless, unrolls a tarp outside Portland City Hall for the “sleep out” Wednesday night to draw attention to the city’s housing crisis. Cox, who was a patron of Preble Street and a volunteer at the agency, said “I support the cause.” Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

“We started talking about this over a month ago and we talked with other nonprofits and we talked with the faith community and we talked with the city of Portland,” Swann said. “What we’re doing is not strange, it’s not odd. It’s best practice. We thought everyone was on board, so we were very surprised to get a cease-and-desist order.”

Swann said groups of people have been sleeping out in the park for weeks.

“To cast blame for this really sad situation that’s been here for weeks if not months, it’s really sad and inaccurate,” Swann said.

Preble Street posted a notice on its website explaining why it closed its soup kitchen this month. The nonprofit said that due to the public health risk of coronavirus spreading when large numbers of people gather, the center would no longer be able to provide takeout meals at the Soup Kitchen door.

The nonprofit said that July 12 would be the last day prepared meals would be given out at 252 Oxford St.

Effective July 13, anyone staying at the Oxford Street Shelter, Milestone Shelter, the Expo Shelter, Florence Street Shelter and the Preble Street Teen Services shelter received three meals a day from Preble Street. People who are unable to stay at one of those shelters were receiving meals through the nonprofit’s new Street Outreach Collaborative, which began delivering food to locations around the city, Preble Street said.

Cody Taylor, who is homeless in Portland, erects a tent outside Portland City Hall on Wednesday evening as part of a “sleep out” to draw attention to the city’s lack of affordable housing. Taylor, 19, said he has been homeless since he was 17 and has slept outdoors in Portland for the past year. He maintains a job and carries all his belongings in a wagon. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Wednesday’s “sleep out” at City Hall was not organized by a particular group or organization, and the statement described the leaders and “people impacted by this crisis.” They also wrote a letter to public officials, demanding investments in housing, public health services and public transportation.

“Throughout the course of the pandemic, many groups and individuals have highlighted Portland’s desperate need for more shelter beds and more public health resources for our most vulnerable residents.,” the letter says. “On Monday, WGME reported that a new encampment of dozens of unhoused people has started in Deering Oaks park since the Preble Resource Center’s day shelter closed their doors recently due to COVID-19. But this is only a fraction of the people who are living outside right now with nowhere else to go.”

“We know people are struggling. The city of Portland is currently operating three CDC compliant shelters and there are additional beds currently available,” Mayor Kate Snyder said in a statement. “Our shelters have 24-hour access, and three meals a day on-site. Portland has long worked with local agencies and nonprofits to respond to the needs of people in our community and now is no different.”

District 1 City Councilor Belinda Ray said she is confident that accommodations could be made to allow Preble Street to serve food outdoors in its current location.

“Of course, if that doesn’t work for them, the city has also identified an alternate location where Preble Street can continue to offer their food service in accordance with CDC guidelines,” Ray said. “I’m hopeful they’ll move forward with that soon to ensure people have some security around where, when and how they can access meals.”

In her statement, Ray did not specify the location of an alternate spot where Preble Street could offer food service.

Staff Writer Matt Byrne contributed to this report.

 

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