One by one, over a dozen people who have been sleeping in tents outside Portland City Hall for the last week told their stories to the city’s top elected official.

Nineteen-year-old Christan Sark has been homeless since she was 15 and hasn’t felt like part of a community that cared until joining the protest encampment.

“This is the only place I feel safe,” Sark told Mayor Kate Snyder. “There are people there who care about me.”

Joshua Rezendes, 34, said he’s been homeless in multiple states since he was 14. When he was released from jail stemming from a theft, he ended up at the encampment. He broke into tears after describing the struggles of being a homeless diabetic and not having regular access to insulin.

“I’m struggling – it’s tough,” Rezendes said. “I don’t want to talk about it. I just need help. That’s it.”

And Cody Taylor, a 19-year-old who has struggled with homelessness off and on for the last four years, said he has met people at the encampment who have been homeless in Portland for the last 40 years.

“Our homeless youth are scared they will be out here for 40 years because they are not getting the help they need,” Taylor said. “This is a problem I choose not to ignore.”

Mayor Kate Snyder’s eyes begin to well up with tears as she speaks with members of the media alongside Fire Chief Keith Gautreau after listening to the stories of protesters near City Hall on Wednesday. The meeting was held to hear out the organizers, participants and allies who are holding the tent-out outside of City Hall. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

The testimony of so many people who became homeless at a young age had a visible impact on Snyder, who listened to the protesters’ stories for nearly two hours as she sat on the grass in Lincoln Park – across Congress Street from the encampment – with the city’s fire chief and city councilors Jill Duson and Spencer Thibodeau. It was the first time the mayor had spoken directly to the individuals who have been camped out since last Wednesday.

After the listening session ended, Snyder became too emotional to answer a question about which specific testimony affected her.

“As a mom,” she started, before her voice broke and she took a minute to hug her husband.

People who are homeless, with the support of housed supporters, have been sleeping at an encampment on the plaza at City Hall since last Wednesday. The group has said it plans to stay at City Hall until the city meets its demands: to freeze evictions, legalize outdoor camping, build more affordable housing, create overdose prevention sites, defund the police and invest more into social services.

“We will not be moved until something concrete is offered,” said Jess Falero, an organizer.

City Hall was closed Monday as a result of the encampment, after a man was verbally accosted and city staff said they felt unsafe. City officials estimate the closure will cost $275,000 a week in lost revenue from things such as vehicle registrations.

Organizer Jess Falero talks with Mayor Kate Snyder before the listening session held at Lincoln Park on Wednesday, July 29, 2020. The meeting was held to hear out the organizers, participants and allies who are holding the tent-out outside City Hall. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Falero also invited Snyder and councilors to visit the encampment. Snyder has said she was uncomfortable doing so because so many people were crowded into the plaza and not wearing masks. She said she worried about passing the coronavirus to her elderly parents. The city requested that people wear masks to the listening session and nearly everyone did.

In addition to demands released over the weekend, many of the people who spoke to Snyder and councilors expressed a desperate need for basic necessities, such as a place to go to the bathroom and take a shower.

Those services used to be available for decades at the Preble Street Resource Center, but the center had to be closed during the coronavirus pandemic and the nonprofit agency has said it will not reopen it. Preble Street also announced that it would no longer hand out meals at its soup kitchen. Instead, it is preparing meals for delivery to area shelters and select drop off points in the city.

Portland’s public library and other public spaces also are no longer accessible to people who have no homes or bathrooms. The city has said that bathrooms, showers and housing counselors are available at city shelters, but those are only accessible for clients staying at them. People not allowed at the shelters or sleeping outside are not allowed to use them.

A Portland spokesperson said that city workers have been conducting outreach to people congregating in Deering Oaks to get them into the city’s shelter system, as well as handing out disposable masks and water. But the same is not being done at City Hall, because that is being treated as a protest.

“We’ve never done outreach at a protest before so that has not been our focus at this time,” City Hall Communications Director Jessica Grondin said, echoing comments made by the city’s Health and Human Services chief at Monday’s council meeting.

Courtney Priest, 22, criticized city officials for expressing concerns about masks among campers, when the city has failed to provide access to basic sanitation.

“Why should we worry about masks when we don’t even have a place to go to the bathroom?” Priest said. “We don’t even have basic human needs being met.”

Scott Smith tells the city officials, “We’re not going anywhere,” during a meeting with Mayor Kate Snyder, Fire Chief Keith Gautreau and city councilors Spencer Thibodeau and Jill Duson at Lincoln Park on Wednesday. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Several speakers said the lack of shower and bathroom facilities are affecting their employment prospects.

“I can’t go in (to an interview) and smell like pee, because I couldn’t find a Porta Potty,” 61-year-old Mary Thompson in an interview. “Showers and potties are so basic, but they’re missing.”

Until Wednesday, the city and mayor have responded to the protesters by emphasizing the number of shelters it runs and their capacity for additional people, as well as the number of housing projects that have been approved by the city.

However, Katherine Hulit, 36, a supporter of the campers, suggested those responses are tone deaf and ignore the reality that there are people who either cannot access the shelter, or do not feel safe there.

“If they were doing a great job, we wouldn’t be in this situation now,” Hulit said. “The bureaucracy of this city is literally killing people.”

Snyder and other councilors expressed a willingness to continue meeting with the protesters and to visit the encampment, as long as masks were worn and physical distancing was respected.

Snyder said she would speak to city staff about the campers’ request for access to showers and restrooms. She also would see if the city could stop the bell tower from ringing every hour at night, so campers can sleep easier.

“Let’s look at this as the beginning of a conversation,” she said.

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