A group that has camped outside Portland City Hall for five nights said Monday it is staying put until the city meets its demands to increase support for people who are homeless or at risk of eviction.

But the city responded Monday by closing City Hall and having workers resume working from home, as they did at the height of the coronavirus pandemic. City Manager Jon Jennings said those in the encampment are not wearing masks or practicing social distancing and that puts city workers, many of whom had resumed working in the building, at risk.

City councilors discussed the encampments in City Hall plaza and Deering Oaks during a workshop Monday evening. However, Tent-Out Portland organizers issued a statement Monday afternoon calling the council workshop “meaningless,” and reiterating their demands to decriminalize camping out, defund the police and reallocate money for social services, establish overdose prevention sites, create more low-income housing and freeze evictions.

The council received an update from city staffers on services being offered to the homeless and they repeated that Portland’s shelters at the Expo and on Oxford Street are at half-capacity.

Still, “there’s a real sense of desperation” among the homeless, said Kristen Dow, Portland’s director of health and human services. “We’re trying to put a forest fire out with a garden hose right now.”

But encampment leaders said they want their voices heard and to see action now.

“We are not looking for time on a council agenda,” organizer Jess Falero said in a written statement. “We are looking for immediate policy proposals from the City Council at Monday’s meeting. We won’t even have an opportunity to speak at their workshop. Since our action started, only one city councilor has been down to talk with us. This is unacceptable. People’s lives are on the line. Our voice and leadership are critical to moving forward solutions that truly address this crisis. We know what we need, and we no longer accept others speaking on our behalf.”

Brian Elliott, left, and Tyler Linscott erect a tent on City Hall Plaza on Monday as a “sleep out” protest enters another night. Linscott, a safety and security volunteer, said more volunteers are needed. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

City Councilor Pious Ali posted on Facebook Monday that he had spent time at the encampment a day earlier.

“I listened to their concerns and this morning in an interview, I shared my hope for an open engagement between the city and representatives of the group in finding immediate solutions,” Ali wrote. “I believe in making sure the voices of those who are impacted are always part of the solution.”

The protest began last Wednesday with a few people staying in tents overnight. By Monday, the encampment had grown to about 30 tents and several canopies where volunteers distributed clothing, food, beverages and medicine, including the overdose antidote naloxone. The encampment now fully consumes the stone and granite plaza in front of City Hall, where a previous tent city in 1987 led to the city’s longstanding commitment to providing shelter for anyone in need.

The community support for the current encampment is reminiscent of the OccupyMaine encampment in 2011, which eventually led to a court battle weighing the public safety issues raised by city officials with the protester’s First Amendment rights. The court ultimately sided with the city and the encampment was disbanded.

But city officials indicated Monday that there won’t be any similar moves against the encampment in Deering Oaks, at least not right away.

“People experiencing homelessness are welcome in the parks,” said Ethan Hipple, acting director of Parks, Recreation and Facilities. But Hipple also said that lawlessness – public drinking and open drug use, for instance – won’t be tolerated and the park also needs to be “welcoming” to others who want to use it, particularly during the heat wave Maine has experienced in recent days.

Frank Clark, Portland’s police chief, said his officers are increasingly being called on to deal with problems at the Oaks.

“Homelessness is not a crime,” he said, but drug use, sexual assaults and fights are. Clark said there have been 12 overdoses in the park since July 12, including six on Sunday, and police have issued 11 criminal trespass citations – which essentially ban someone from the park with the threat of arrest – during the same time period.

The current protest comes as the coronavirus pandemic has exposed longstanding inequities in society, especially the lack of health care and secure housing for low-income and minority populations.

It also comes after the nonprofit social service agency Preble Street announced that it would not reopen its Resource Center at 5 Portland St., which provided access to a phone, showers, laundry, personal supplies and caseworkers for 300 to 400 people a day. The nonprofit also announced that it would not reopen its soup kitchen dining room and instead would drop off meals at various sites around the city.

One of those sites was Deering Oaks Park. But the city ordered Preble Street to stop dropping off food there until it received a permit from the city.

Portland is the only municipality in the state that operates a low-barrier shelter that admits people from across the state and beyond, including people who are under the influence of drugs or alcohol. It also operates a family shelter and a temporary shelter at the Portland Expo, which has been used to give shelter clients more space to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. It’s also planning on building a larger emergency shelter on Riverside Street, near Westbrook, but those efforts have been interrupted by the pandemic.

The city stopped admitting new clients into its shelter in March because of the virus, but has been providing hotel rooms for anyone seeking shelter. The costs are being picked up by the state.

Some people remain outdoors, sometimes because they feel safer or sometimes because they have violated rules, are barred from the city’s shelters and have been unable to secure a hotel room.

One protester, 50-year-old Raymondo Rezendez, said he has been camping out on the Fore River. Rezendez said he decided to join the City Hall encampment, not only to send a message to city officials, but to feel safer. When he arrived, he was given a new Ozark Trail tent. A container of cigarettes, bag of granola and Sour Patch Kids candy lay next to him as he spoke.

“I wanted a place where I could secure what little I have without worrying about my camp being ransacked,” Rezendez said. “I think this is awesome. I haven’t thought of anything that I wanted that they haven’t had.”

Michele Arcand, a local social worker, said she has been stopping by the encampment every day, before and after work, to see how people are doing. As temperatures approached 90 degrees Monday, she was handing out Popsicles to cool people down and keep them hydrated. She said that people without access to shelter lack facilities for basic human needs, such as going to the bathroom.

Arcand said the closure of the Preble Street Resource Center was a “huge blow” to the homeless community, but she was encouraged that a traditionally voiceless population was finding their voice.

“I’m psyched that people who have struggled to stand up have stood up firmly,” Arcand said.

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