For close to a week, homeless people have been camping outside of Portland City Hall in a call for the city to address their needs. Volunteers provided food, medical attention, clothing and other supplies to 150 people there. Michael Kelley / The Forecaster

PORTLAND — Homeless people and advocates vow to not leave City Hall Plaza until their demands are met, and city councilors are weighing how long they will allow their encampment, which has caused the closure of City Hall, to continue.

The protesters will remain until “they grant our demands or until they kick us out,” said Jess Falero, a community organizer with the Maine Peoples Housing Coalition.

Tents shelter the homeless at City Hall Plaza. Michael Kelley / The Forecaster

“Even then we are going to not go away,” Falero said Sunday. “This is long overdue. Our concerns are being dismissed. We know what we need and we are no longer taking no for an answer.”

The City Council is set to discuss at its Aug. 3 meeting if or how much longer the demonstrators can occupy the plaza.

The encampment began July 22, and as of Tuesday, Adam Rice, of the Maine Peoples Housing Coalition estimates there were 50 to 60 people staying there overnight and upwards of 200 coming by during the day for food, water, shade or medical care.

The group is demanding the city decriminalize camping out; defund the police and reallocate that money for medical and mental health services; establish overdose prevention sites; extend eviction freezes and include those impacted in the planning process for permanent affordable housing.

The encampment violates city rules because of the number of people involved and the length of their stay, but city councilors Monday indicated they wouldn’t support asking the people to leave at this point. Under city rules, the council must approve events that last more than three days and a permit is needed for events with more than 25 attendees.

City Manager Jon Jennings on Monday temporarily closed City Hall after staff there expressed safety and health concerns. The staff is now working from home.

Since July 23 police have responded to 12 calls for service at City Hall Plaza including two drug overdoses, two medical calls, a sexual assault, terrorizing and a fight.

“There is a lot of activity I have concerns with from a public safety standpoint,” Portland Fire Chief Keith Gautreau said.

City Manager Jon Jennings has shut down City Hall because of his staff’s safety concerns about the encampment. Michael Kelley / The Forecaster

Staff members also were concerned that many demonstrators are not wearing masks or social distancing to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, and Jennings said there were also complaints about human excrement on the plaza and tobacco and marijuana use amidst the demonstration.

Councilor Pious Ali visited the encampment Sunday and recommended others from the city do so as well before Aug. 3 when the council will discuss if encampment can continue or must move to another location, such as was the case in 2011 when city officials allowed the Occupy Portland group to move from City Hall to nearby Lincoln Park.

“I spent time there yesterday and what I saw was people willing to work with us,” Ali said Monday.

Mayor Kate Snyder, Gautreau and councilors Jill Duson and Spencer Thibodeau met with several of the homeless July 29 in Lincoln Park to hear their stories and concerns.

Councilor Belinda Ray suggested the Cross Insurance Arena could be used as a temporary space to house and provide services to the protesters, much like was done last summer for asylum seekers at the Portland Exposition Building.

“I don’t want to simply move this to a less visible location and not be doing what we need to be doing to solves the issues,” she said.

Charlie Amerson, who has been staying at the City Hall site for the last few days, said the biggest issue he and other homeless people have right now is access to bathrooms, especially now with Preble Street Resource Center transitioning its resource center into a new 40-bed homeless shelter and other public places, such as the Portland Public Library, are closed due to the pandemic.

“There is really no where for us to go,” he said.

The Maine Peoples Housing Coalition is raising money for a mobile shower unit and Health and Human Services Director Kristen Dow said Milestone Recovery on India Street has offered the use of its showers and restrooms between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m. Monday through Friday. Preble Street, Dow said, also is looking into temporarily reopening their resource center’s bathrooms facilities in a limited capacity.

Access to bathrooms is also the primary concern for Mary Thompson, who lives in a car with her daughter.

“I would ask (city officials) to supply porta potties where they are needed,” said Thompson, who has been homeless since her husband died in 2013.

Thompson was looking to join the encampment Sunday.

“The homeless get together. It’s kind of like a big family,” she said.

Adam Rice, a member of the Maine People’s Housing Coalition, said he wants the city to do more for the homeless.

The demonstration, he said, is about “showing public officials how many people are left out of their policies” and community members that “they are not invisible, that they’re loved, and they deserve to succeed and live their best life.”

“We need desperately to highlight these weak spots in our city and outline how to fix them,” he said. “There are people with the answers, but our council needs to listen and take their lead for a change. Business as usual got us here and it is time we all do better. If we work together there is no end to what we can accomplish in the vein of making Portland more fair and equitable for all its residents.”

Rice said the response from the community has been overwhelming and at times has brought tears to his eyes.

“Folks have been dropping off food, drinks, medical supplies, and volunteering their time around the clock to ensure we can meet these folks’ basic needs,” Rice said.  “Thanks to our volunteers, folks have been able to finally sleep through the night and feel safe.”

Amerson said he hopes this demonstration “lights a fire for the city to do something.”

“We aren’t asking for the world. We are asking for what everyone else has. We want to be treated as part of this society like everyone else,” he said.

Jennings said he understands the concerns, but addressing them involves policy decisions that need to go before the City Council.

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