The encampment in front of City Hall, which began July 22, has grown and is spilling over on to Myrtle and Chestnut streets. Michael Kelley / The Forecaster

PORTLAND —  Protesters at a 2-week-old encampment outside City Hall say they are standing their ground until the city acts on their demands to improve the plight of the homeless, but the city so far has no specific plans to do so.

Conversations between the city and protesters have begun, but the council is now focused on addressing public health concerns at the encampment itself, such as the lack of bathroom facilities and the fact that many of the upwards of 200 protesters present during the day are not wearing facial masks or social distancing.

Tents continue to crowd the plaza in front of City Hall Monday and the building remains closed. Some city business, such as vehicle registrations and obtaining marriage, death or birth certificates, can be done by appointment at the Parks, Recreation and Facilities building at 212 Canco Road. Michael Kelley / The Forecaster

“We are not moving our encampment until our demands are met,” said Cody Taylor, who has been sleeping near the steps of City Hall as part of the protest that began July 22.

The group is demanding the city decriminalize homeless encampments; 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.

They will stay in City Hall Plaza until those demands are granted or they are kicked out, they say.

City officials are concerned about behavior at the encampment, which has included drug use, fighting, the raiding of parking meters, public urination and defecation and an early morning incident Aug. 1 in which a passing motorist fired gunshots at the group.

Food, water and some medical services are available at the encampment. To improve sanitary conditions, councilors Monday suggested allowing the protesters to use Merrill Auditorium bathrooms at City Hall or providing portable toilets. They also suggested giving protesters access to showers and bathrooms at Portland High School’s gym or the Cross Insurance Arena. The use of facilities at the school gym and the arena would require approval from the school board and county commissioners, respectively.

There had been some hope that Preble Street could temporarily reopen the Resource Center, which for more than 25 years provided the homeless with showers, bathrooms and help with housing, employment and other needs.

Preble Street Executive Director Mark Swann said this week that a temporary reopening is impossible because it is counter to the recommendations the organization has been given by infectious disease professionals and the Maine Center for Disease Control.

“With hundreds of people coming in and out, in and out, in and out of that space everyday, that goes against any sort of guidance or directive we’ve been given in terms of keeping people safe, including our staff, volunteers and of course clients,” Swann said.

The space, which Preble Street hopes to convert to a 40-bed wellness shelter by mid-September, has been closed since March to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

Swann rejects the notion that the Resource Center’s closure is in some way to blame for the encampment at City Hall and the campers in Deering Oaks. He said the issue prompting the encampment is people choosing to live outside rather than to stay in city shelters because they are not allowed or don’t feel comfortable there.

Preble Street remains committed to helping the homeless and helping the city meet the demands of protesters.

“We stand ready to work with the city and have for years,” he said.

Mayor Kate Snyder said some of the solutions to protester demands, such as the decriminalization of camping, are decisions of the council, but others, such as extending a freeze on evictions, are up to the state.  The statewide ban on landlords evicting residents for not being able to pay rent due to impact of the coronavirus lapsed on Aug. 3.

“Some of these issues will take some time, but I am totally committed to seeing to this and continuing conversations,” said Snyder, who along with councilors Jill Duson and Spencer Thibodeau and Fire Chief Keith Gautreau held a listening session with members of the encampment July 29.

The city and its community partners, which include Milestone Recovery, Amistad, Preble Street and Opportunity Alliance, will ramp up their outreach and connect with the homeless outside of City Hall and at Deering Oaks in the coming days.

“We’ve never done outreach at a protest before, but that will change,” said Kristen Dow, the city’s director of health and human services.

Katherine Hulit, a resident of Wadsworth Street, said City Hall was chosen for the encampment to put the protesters’ concerns front and center.

“This has been a public health crisis for many, many years and the reason it is on the steps of City Hall right now is because the city has ignored it and pushed it to the sidelines,” she said.

Priorities vary among the protesters and their supporters.

Taylor said he would like to see the city council’s top priority be decriminalizing camping on public land, maintaining eviction freezes and reallocating money set aside for policing to mental health programs.

Advocate Meaghan LaSala of Wadsworth Street sees establishing overdose prevention sites as the most important issue.

Over the last few weeks, Deering Oaks has seen an increase of people sleeping in the park and a rise in the number of overdoses and spent needles found there. Between July 13 and July 27, there were 13 overdoses in Deering Oaks, including six July 26 and over the last two months close to 250 needles were found in the park. There have also been overdoses at the City Hall encampment, including two on July 27.

“We know it will save lives. It is the solution those directly impacted are calling for,” LaSala said of overdose prevention sites.

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