Tents set up in front of Portland City Hall as a part of a “sleep-out” to protest the lack of housing and services in the city. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Dan Milligan, a 67-year-old disabled veteran, said he sympathizes with the people who have been staying at the City Hall encampment for over a week.

But, he says, homelessness is not an issue that can be solved by Portland taxpayers alone.

Residents like 36-year-old Katherine Hulit disagree. She thinks the city should be doing more to meet the needs of the city’s homeless population, which is especially vulnerable during the coronavirus pandemic.

As an encampment protest heads into a second week in the plaza outside City Hall, Portland residents are confronting a homelessness crisis with a mix of sympathy and frustration. While some taxpayers say it shouldn’t be up to Portland alone to provide services for people in need who come from near and far, others see the desperation of people living on the street as a failure of local leadership and community will.

Five of the people who have made City Hall plaza their home in recent days spoke about their stories with the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram, providing personal glimpses of a larger problem that has reached a crisis point as the pandemic cut off access to public and private facilities and support services. The protesters are challenging the city to act, but the broader community has mixed feelings about what can and should be done.

Mayor Kate Snyder said she has received about 100 to 200 emails from people in support of the campers and their demands, though she said most are form letters that say essentially the same thing. Over the past few days, she has received about 50 or 60 emails from residents who are concerned about the encampment and the city’s ability to meet the demands, she said.

“Both viewpoints are definitely represented in my in-box,” Snyder said, adding she saw city staff cleaning the sidewalks near City Hall with a disinfectant. “I think there’s a lot of concern. … It becomes a public health hazard not only for the city employees and the folks walking around the neighborhood, but also the folks who are staying there.”

Milligan has registered his concerns. He said health issues forced him into early retirement from working on a tugboat, making it difficult to pay his ever-rising property tax bill on the North Deering home he’s owned since 1979.

He would like to see the city’s leadership enforce existing ordinances that prohibit smoking in parks, urinating on the street, being naked in public and other behavior, rather than turning a blind eye. And he loses his patience when he sees people from outside of Portland coming here and issuing demands to Portland taxpayers.

Raymondo Rezendez sits outside his tent at the top of the steps at Portland City Hall. Rezendez, who is homeless, received the tent as a donation. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

“These are state and national problems – they are not the problems of the people of the city of Portland,” Milligan said. He wants more advocacy from the city’s elected mayor and city councilors for state action. “Someone has got to get out in front of the camera and say, ‘You can’t stay here.’”

Hulit, however, told Snyder at a recent listening session in Lincoln Park that she was a housed ally of the campers and urged the city to do more to meet the demands of the campers. Those demands include freezing evictions, legalizing camping on public property, establishing overdose prevention sites (currently prohibited under federal law), building more low-income housing, defunding the police and increasing investment in social services.

Hulit chastised public officials who in response to the encampment have been highlighting the services it is providing to some homeless people. She said the recent heat wave and coronavirus pandemic have created an emergency situation. She urged officials to “go outside the norm” to find solutions.

“If (city staff) were doing a great job, we wouldn’t be in this situation right now,” she said. “The bureaucracy in this city is literally killing people. … Do things differently, so things can be better.”

So far, campers have vowed to remain at City Hall until leaders offer concrete measures to begin addressing their concerns.

Over the last week, the encampment has grown into its own small community. In addition to the 50 to 60 people sleeping in roughly 30 tents, organizers have set up a series of canopies to meet some basic needs for clothing, food, water, access to electricity to charge phones, and a medical tent, whose supplies include the overdose antidote naloxone. Allies have been dropping off supplies, including food, tents and sleeping mats, on a daily basis.

Scott Smith, who is homeless, is participating in the ongoing “sleep-out” protest at Portland City Hall. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Organizers have enlisted housed allies to help keep the peace. More than a dozen people have been trained in deescalation tactics and remain on site 24 hours a day to resolve disputes among campers and to keep them safe from harassment by the general public. Campers and volunteers work together to sweep the sidewalk and manage the trash and recycling.

But who is staying at the encampment and what are their goals? Five of the people shared their stories. Read them here.

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