A “sleep-out” protest at Portland City Hall continued into a second day and night Thursday, calling attention to the struggles faced by homeless people during the coronavirus pandemic.

As rain clouds threatened and darkness grew Thursday night, a few dozen people gathered among several tents and other makeshift shelters set up on the plaza and front steps of the formidable gray granite building on Congress Street.

Organizers said they planned to continue the demonstration through Thursday night and into Friday.

“Many folks camped out last night in front of City Hall without incident,” organizers wrote in a Facebook post. “The evening was very peaceful and all present were able to feel safe and supported. We aim to continue to support this community moving forward as there are calls for continued, ongoing protests.”

Year-old Madden Porter laughs as his mother, Morgan Locklear, swings him during Thursday’s demonstration at City Hall Plaza. Locklear and her boyfriend, Aaron Porter, are homeless so she and her baby stay at the Family Center Shelter on Chestnut Street while Porter sleeps outdoors. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Alternately called a “tent-out,” the demonstration will include training sessions, community building, opportunities for public speaking “about issues that cannot be allowed to continue any longer,” the post said.

On Thursday afternoon, the Portland City Council announced that it will hold a workshop Monday on issues related to homelessness, people staying in Deering Oaks and the protest at City Hall. The discussion will be held at the end of an online special meeting that will start at 5:30 p.m.

Jessica Grondin, city spokeswoman, said the protesters notified city officials they would gather outside City Hall. She said they don’t need a permit as long as the number of participants remains below 25. If the size of the encampment grows and they need a permit, it would be issued free of charge and is more about the city overseeing the use of public spaces, she said.

Grondin said she didn’t know where the protesters were using bathroom facilities, but it wasn’t inside City Hall, which is still closed to the public except by appointment and for specific business with the city treasurer or city clerk. A city employee was monitoring a side entrance to City Hall on Thursday.

The current group of protesters includes homeless people, financially insecure renters and advocates for safe and affordable housing.

People involved with the “sleep out” at Portland City Hall speak with police Thursday. Leaders said police got a report of illegal activity at the encampment but left without incident after about 15 minutes. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

One of the protesters is Aaron Porter, 25, who has been homeless along with his fiancee and two young children for the better part of five years.

“We want to see a change in the way people look at us,” said Porter, who works for a temp agency and is currently tenting outside.

Porter’s fiancee and children are staying at the city’s family shelter, where they said Porter isn’t allowed because he uses medical marijuana. They returned to Portland recently from New Hampshire, where they said they were scammed by a landlord, who refused to rent to them after they gave him $1,800 in cash.

“We’ve been through a lot,” said Morgan Locklear, 26, Porter’s fiancee. “We’re just trying to live our lives. We just want to be respected.”

The protest comes at a time when the city is operating three shelters and housing about 200 people in hotels. At the same time, Preble Street, a nonprofit agency in the Bayside neighborhood that serves homeless people, closed its on-site operations as a precaution against spreading the coronavirus and began serving to-go meals at shelters and various locations around the city.

One of the distribution sites at Deering Oaks was discontinued this week when a growing number of people congregating in the park drew complaints from other residents and prompted the city to order Preble Street to stop until it had a proper permit.

Gary Brooks, who has been homeless since 2009, flashes a peace sign while sitting under a tent at Portland City Hall to avoid light rain. Brooks participated in the “sleep out” at City Hall on Wednesday night and planned to stay for a second night Thursday. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Protesters also issued expanded demands Thursday, adding to their initial call for better access to affordable and safe housing, food, water, health services and public transportation.

Protesters want the city to designate a location “where the rules against camping will not apply, so that anyone who is unable to access overnight shelter services can still have a safe space at night.”

They also want a daytime warming shelter established by winter; one or more overdose prevention sites and additional needle exchange services; and greater support for “organizations providing food to the homeless.”

“All present still very much echo sentiments that housing is a human right, that the rents in the city are too high, and that everyone deserves access to food, water and hygiene,” the protesters wrote.

As the sun went down, the crowd circled around the City Hall steps for an evening meeting, trading ideas about how to make the protest safe and welcoming for everyone who is participating.

At least 10 sleeping tents had been set up for the night, some under tarps to protect them from the rain. People stopped by to deliver cases of water. One man walked around with a broom to sweep up trash or cigarettes. Nearly every person wore a mask, and a supply tent was stocked with medical and cleaning supplies, as well as food and water. Signs hung on the front of City Hall with messages: “Housing is a human right” and “Houses over hotels.”

The “sleep out” at Portland City Hall enters its second night on Thursday. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

The sleep-out is reminiscent of a similar protest in 1987 that led the city to take over operation of the Oxford Street Shelter.

At the time, the state was reducing the size of mental health institutions, effectively putting more people with mental illness onto the streets. And a private shelter closed, triggering what became known as the “tent city protest” that called on city leaders to expand services.

Homeless people set up an encampment in front of City Hall, and eventually moved to nearby Lincoln Park, to protest the closure of the private shelter. Then-City Manager Robert Ganley initially resisted protesters’ demands for a new shelter and even threatened to arrest protesters if they didn’t leave the encampment.

The standoff ended more than two weeks later after Mitch Snyder, a nationally known advocate for homeless people, traveled to Portland to negotiate with Ganley, who subsequently vowed that Portland “would do its part” and oversaw the reopening of the shelter with city funding.

Richard Cox, 56, said he participated in that protest years ago. On Thursday night, he set up a tent in the plaza yet again. He said he has been homeless on and off for 15 years.

“It’s just not right for the ones left on the street to not have help,” he said.

He said he hopes the encampment continues to grow and the passers-by listen to the message.

“We’re human,” Cox said. “We all need a helping hand, just like they would. Respect is what we need.”

More recently, Occupy Maine protesters, including some homeless people, tented in Lincoln Park for more than four months in late 2011 and early 2012. As many as 75 people joined the encampment, which was part of a nationwide movement opposing income inequality and corporate influence in politics and government.

Staff Writer Megan Gray contributed to this report.

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