Riley Allen, a senior at MECA, has signed a petition disagreeing with the college’s concerns about Portland’s plan to consolidate its social services and public health programs next to where the college wants to open a dorm. Allen said, “We want to support our community in the best way we can and support those people who don’t have as much privilege as us.”  Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Students at the Maine College of Art are pushing back against statements by school leaders who expressed concerns this week about student safety in light of the city’s plan to relocate a public health clinic and social services near a planned student housing project.

Several students said MECA’s response reflects deeply rooted classism in the administration and a lack of respect for people experiencing poverty or homelessness, citing a portion of the college’s freshman orientation that teaches students to avoid eye contact and engaging with people on the street who ask for money. And others said the concerns go against the college’s commitment to racial justice, diversity and inclusion.

The students do not agree with the school,” said Riley Allen, a 23-year graphic design senior. “For them to kind of speak for the students, on our behalf, we’re kind of upset about that because we want to support our community in the best way we can and support those people who don’t have as much privilege as us. It’s disappointing.”

At issue are future development plans for both the city and the college, which is on Congress Street in the heart of Portland’s downtown.

Last week, the city revealed that it was looking to co-locate its social services, such as General Assistance, and public health programs, including its free health clinic and Needle Exchange, into an existing two-story office building at 39 Forest Ave. The city set an aggressive timeline for the move, hoping to begin renovations in June and begin moving services in July. Officials noted that existing maintenance issues and expiring leases made the timing right for such a move, and noted how consolidating services currently offered at two separate locations would be better for clients.

The city’s announcement prompted MECA officials and their developer to announce that they were finalizing plans to restore a more than century old building next door at 45 Forest Ave. and turn it into a new 180-student residence hall, with a ground floor lounge and cafeteria. They expressed concern about student safety, stressing that nearly three quarters of the students who would reside there are women, and called on the city to slow down its process and consider alternatives.

The Portland Stage Co. and a well-known Portland lawyer who is planning a development near the proposed city office also raised concerns about the city’s plans.

Dan Toomre, a second-year student, said, “The student safety aspect comes across as inauthentic.” Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

But nine MECA students interviewed Thursday said they were disappointed with the college’s response. They noted that the college has not adequately addressed safety concerns at its existing residences and was focusing too much on the safety of women, without acknowledging existing safety issues for more vulnerable populations, including people of color, trans and nonbinary students.

“I’m kind of disgusted by how the college is handling it,” said Dan Toomre, a 20-year-old textiles student. “I think I’d just like to see at the very least an apology statement.”

Toomre added, “The student safety aspect comes across as inauthentic. If they were really concerned about student safety I feel like they’d increase security measures in the dorms currently.”

Charlotte Hardy, a first-year MECA student, disagrees with the college’s position on Portland’s plan to consolidate social service and public health programs on Forest Avenue. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Charlotte Hardy, 18, a first-year illustration and game art student, said that safety is an existing concern for many female-presenting students like herself, especially those who live in student housing on Preble Street in Bayside, which has a network of social services operated by nonprofits and the city. But she was upset that the college did not acknowledge existing safety issues for other vulnerable students.

“A lot of people were especially talking about the female population feeling unsafe,” Hardy said of the college’s response. “I guess one of the big things is that we say female – does that just mean female presenting? There are other populations like people of color and trans communities and nonbinary communities that are more likely to be targeted rather than just female communities. That was one of the biggest concerns.”

Ova Simhah, a second-year student at MECA, said, “I don’t feel like it’s necessary to banish something that’s going to help people.” Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Ova Simhah, a 21-year-old illustration student, understands safety concerns expressed by fellow students who have been subjected to catcalls, but he doesn’t think those concerns should displace vital services for people in need.

“I have no problem with them building a new dorm,” Simhah said, “but I don’t feel like it’s necessary to banish something that’s going to help people.”

MECA officials reiterated their support for Health and Human Service programs in written statements Thursday. The college has 500 undergraduate and graduate students, more than 70 percent of whom are women, administrators said.

“I want to be clear that MECA is 100 percent supportive of HHS and its mission; the college is committed to developing a culture of social change, racial justice, and inclusion, and supporting community organizations whose missions are aligned with ours,” MECA President Laura Freid said. “We are also concerned about the safety and well being of our students and the impact the planned relocation of some of these services may have. These two statements are not mutually exclusive.”

The new space also would house public health programming, including the needle exchange, STD/HIV testing and the Portland Community Free Clinic, which provides health care to low-income people. It would not include an emergency shelter, though it would provide initial intake services for people seeking that shelter, which is currently located in Bayside.

Executive Vice President Beth Elicker said MECA has worked to improve student safety by partnering with Portland police and the city manager to improve exterior lighting around student housing. The college also has instituted safe walks and rides to residence halls by security, she said.

“We will be meeting with students, HHS and city staff this week and next to invite more discussion and collaboration,” Elicker said.

Fairen Stark, a 19-year-old sophomore illustration major, was among the first students to speak out publicly against the college’s response. She’s promoting an online petition that states students do not support prioritizing a new dorm over social services and that students don’t view unhoused people as a threat. The petition calls the administration’s concerns “inappropriate and classist” and asks the college to publicly apologize.

Stark said the college often sends messages to students about racial justice, but its opposition to the city’s plan makes it look like a “performative ally,” one that wants to be seen as supporting such efforts without actually doing the work. She said the college as an obligation to the greater Portland community, because its campus is centrally located in downtown Portland.

“They love to preach about diversity and inclusion but when push comes to shove they don’t want to address Portland’s marginalized communities,” Stark said. “At the end of the day, this just shows a lot of the MECA administration is not willing to actually do the work to help Portland’s community, and they care more about the image of a $15 million new dorm project than they do about their students and other folks in Portland who need these health resources.”

Stark said she communicated her concerns via email to Fried and Elicker on Wednesday afternoon and she plans to meet with them on Friday to continue the discussion.

Stark speculated that the college is worried about the reaction of the parents of prospective students when touring the new dorm and seeing the city services nearby.

Katie Rose, a senior at MECA, agrees with the idea that the college is concerned about the reaction of parents of prospective students. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Katie Rose, a 25-year-old senior in fashion textiles agreed that was likely motivating the opposition.

Although Rose and other females acknowledge that it can feel unsafe downtown at night, she said Portland is generally a safe city and she hoped that both the college and the city could work through their issues and peacefully coexist.

“May be there could be some sort of program that doesn’t create separation but encourages a healthy relationship between the dorms and the services,” Rose said. 

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