With many places closed due to the pandemic and the discontinuance of the tent protest on the steps of City Hall, homeless people have been congregating in a section of Deering Oaks. Michael Kelley / The Forecaster

PORTLAND — The congregation of homeless people on the strip of Deering Oaks Park between High Street and Forest Avenue has grown in recent weeks with the closure of the protest encampment at City Hall, prompting neighbors to wish the group would take better care of the park and police to respond twice as much to the park as usual.

An encampment in front of City Hall formed on July 22 and lasted two weeks until it disbanded. About 50 to 60 people stayed overnight there and upwards of 200 came by during the day for food, water, shade or medical care. The protesters called for the city to 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.

After the City Hall demonstration disbanded, some of the protesters moved to Deering Oaks, where a smaller, less organized group had set up camp in what is called the Edwards Lot.

“Since the protest at City Hall ended, we have seen an increased number of individuals in Deering Oaks Park during the day,” said Portland’s health and human services director Kristen Dow. “A group of social service providers continues to meet regularly to discuss the issues in the park as well as outreach efforts. There continues to be daily outreach efforts from a variety of agencies to individuals in the park to link them to services in the community.”

Dow said although numbers at both the Expo and Oxford Street Shelter have continued to grow, “we still have capacity in our shelters in addition to the assistance we are providing through General Assistance.”

Some neighbors interviewed say they have no issues with the people gathering at the park, but they do have a problem with the mess they make.

Lou Malarsie, a member of the Portland House of Prayer at 28 Park Ave., said he has had mostly positive experiences with the homeless people in the park, some of whom do spend the night there.

“Every once in a while you get a handful of attitude, but the vast majority has been very nice,” he said Monday while handing out free lunches, which the church provides to anyone Monday through Friday afternoon.

Dan Whatley, a resident of High Street, said the group in the park has mostly keeps to themselves.

“I haven’t noticed any conflicts between people staying there and people living around this area,” he said Monday as he walked his dog along High Street.

The impact, Whatley and Malarsie said, is on the park itself. Malarsie called it an “eyesore” and both said the area is riddled with garbage, including used needles.

“I wish there was more of an effort on the city’s part to clean up the park, especially the needles,” Whatley said.

The Police Department has been working with the Parks Department to clean up the park, according to Lt. Robert Martin Martin, but Ethan Hipple, acting director of the city’s parks, recreation and facilities, has ordered his workers to stop cleaning that section in an abundance of caution for his workers.

“City staff temporarily suspended trash removal and horticultural maintenance in Edwards Lot and the Rose Garden due to safety concerns for staff, but we expect those services to resume soon,” said Dena Libner, Assistant to the City Manager for Constituent Services.

Edward Moore, who has lived on Park Avenue for 22 years with his wife and raised three children there, said these issues are not new to Deering Oaks.

“It’s a beautiful park and I take a walk through it nearly every day. For the past several years it has deteriorated somewhat with people using drugs, leaving needles, drinking and camping. The city has turned a blind eye,” Moore said.

“The latest episode of homeless encampments has exacerbated things. I see needles, used condoms, tampons, liquor bottles, discarded clothing and so much cigarette litter. There is human feces, toilet paper and discarded underwear in the Rose Garden.”

Moore said he has reported it to the city through Fix It! Portland several times and to his city council representative to no avail. The park, he said, is no longer a safe place to bring his granddaughter, who enjoys the park’s playground.

“While I fully understand that homelessness is a complex social problem and that the city has neglected its responsibility to address it, and we are in trying times, this needs to be addressed now,” he said. “Compassion and caring must be balanced by the city with a duty to taxpayers and all citizens who have a right to enjoy a clean and safe Deering Oaks.”

Martin said “there is a lot of criminal activity happening” in the park in general.

“We have been going down to Deering Oaks on a regular basis and enforcing a variety of criminal activity and it has resulted in a number of arrests, anything from criminal trespass to possession of drugs to assault on a police officer,” he said.

Between July 12, shortly after the encampment at Deering Oaks began, and July 27, the last time data was publicly released, Portland Police had close to 100 calls for service at the park, almost double the amount of calls in the same period last year.

Between July 12 and July 27 there were 13 drug overdoses at Deering Oaks and this spring close to 250 needles were picked up from the park.

Martin said a person who commits a crime in the park is banned from returning for six months and those who defy that are issued criminal trespass orders. Although it is against city rules to sleep overnight on a public property, including city parks, Martin said when police see someone who is doing so, they generally ask them to “move along” rather than issue them a citation.

Police haven’t heard too many complaints from the public about the latest encampment, Martin said, aside from those of workers at the U.S. Post Office at Forest Avenue and Portland Street, who have said some individuals are using the steps as a place to defecate and urinate.

Malarsie said rather than use the portable toilets at Deering Oaks, some of the homeless people have relieved themselves in the back of his church’s parking lot.

People in that area of the park approached on Monday declined to comment on the encampment.

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