Rebecca Descoteau has been camping around Portland for about the last year.

“It’s rough out here,” said Descoteau, who is homeless and said she has moved around to different locations, including the most recent on the outskirts of Deering Oaks park, where she has been staying in a tent the last few days.

The 30-year-old said she prefers camping to being in a shelter, which she said aggravates her depression and anxiety, and where she doesn’t feel as safe sleeping near strangers. But being outside also comes with challenges.

Rebecca Descoteau, 30, who moved to Portland from New Hampshire about a year ago, near her camp in Portland. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

“Once you’re homeless it’s kind of like, mentally, it’s draining, and the more you lose stuff the more hopeless you feel,” said Descoteau, who described instances of having belongings taken from her by others on the street and being kicked off private property near a parking garage where she had been camping last winter.

The city doesn’t track the number of unauthorized campsites, such as the one where Descoteau is staying, but officials say they are noticing a growing number of such sites as the weather gets warmer and Portland continues to see high numbers of homeless people.

“Staff has seen individuals definitely camping in different locations,” said interim City Manager Danielle West. “There are certain spots we notice and we work to make sure those individuals try to find an alternative space. We have seen an increase as we head into the summer and I think that might be due partly to homelessness numbers increasing in general.”


The city is currently providing shelter to 506 individual homeless people, including 114 at its Oxford Street Shelter and 392 in hotels, as well as 1,002 individuals in families, the majority of whom are asylum seekers. In all, just over 1,500 people are being sheltered.

In October of last year, by comparison, the city was serving 850 individuals in city-run shelters and hotels, including 343 single adults and 507 individuals in families.


In response to the increasing number of people setting up campsites, Portland recently adopted a new policy on responding to sites on city property.

Many components of the policy are things staff has been doing for a while, but the policy spells them out clearly and will help ensure uniform practice, West said. She also hopes the policy will help the city better respond to the needs of the homeless and connect them with services.

“It’s really to put what we’ve been doing on paper and have a set way of how we’ll be doing things so it will be clear for members of the public, community partners, the council and also staff … so it’s fair and clear for everybody,” she said.


The policy, which will be presented to the City Council as a communication item Monday, meaning no council action is needed, says that while state and local laws prohibit loitering and camping on public property, staff will not require the removal of campsites when city emergency shelters are at capacity, unless the campsite is determined to be an obstruction or hazard.

Brandi R., at the camp where she is staying in Portland on Thursday. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

West said Wednesday that the city’s Oxford Street Shelter, which provides shelter for individuals, is not currently at capacity. “We have not reached that yet, is my understanding,” West said.

However, the policy states that if capacity is reached, the city’s social services administrator will notify the Police Department, Department of Parks & Recreation, and Office of the City Manager. In instances where campsites are identified for removal, at least 24 hours’ notice will be provided at most campsites prior to their removal, the policy states.

The policy also encourages staff to work closely with community partners to offer resources and services, along with enforcement, and includes a process for ensuring personal belongings removed from campsites will be inventoried and securely stored for their owners to collect.

Amistad, a social services agency that provides peer support and harm reduction for people struggling with homelessness, mental illness and substance use, was one of several community groups that worked with the city to develop the policy. The agency will also play a key role in providing storage space for people’s belongings that get cleared from campsites.



Brian Townsend, Amistad’s executive director, said city staff involved in removing campsites will notify people either verbally or in writing on how to contact the agency, where they’re located (at 103 India St.) and the amount of time they’ll have to retrieve their belongings. The agency will receive and store whatever is collected in two vacant rooms they have.

“We are of course going to look to use this opportunity to check in with folks and check in on what are their real needs, their obstacles to safety and to housing and everything else,” Townsend said. “Some folks will be familiar with us but a lot won’t, so it seems like a good opportunity to get to know people.”

A homeless encampment near Deering Oaks Park on Thursday. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

He said he’s pleased to see the city has adopted the new policy.

“I think what we had in the past was a lack of clarity and kind of chaotic interventions without a policy to back it up,” Townsend said. “We thought that was harmful to the folks we support. They just didn’t know if their encampment was legal or not legal, who would intervene, what that would look like or anything else.

“It will have to have a life and play out and if there are practices that aren’t great they will need to be corrected, but having that policy at least, and that communication, is a huge improvement so we’re very excited about that.”

Descoteau hadn’t heard about the city’s new policy but when told about it by a reporter Thursday said she liked the idea of being able to recover belongings if a campsite is cleared.


“That would be perfect, it’s just a matter of figuring out how to say, ‘Hey, we took your stuff and it’s here,’ ” she said.


Not everyone is so optimistic. At a cluster of tents on the edge of Deering Oaks near Forest Avenue, Neal, who is also homeless, said he doesn’t think the plan to return belongings will work.

A group of homeless individuals at a camp near Deering Oaks Park on Thursday. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Neal, who did not want to give his last name because he did not want his mother to know he’s homeless, said he lost several belongings, including clothes, winter boots and his dentures, when a previous campsite he was staying at on state property was cleared by the Maine Department of Transportation a few weeks ago.

He said he also was arrested for drinking in public and that when that happened “it took forever” to retrieve a backpack he had with him. “And that was stored at the police department,” Neal said. “So no, I don’t buy that.”

Neal and a group of friends at the tents said they were asked to move their campsites from an area near the Interstate 295 overpass Wednesday, which was what brought them to the edge of Deering Oaks.


Paul Merrill, a spokesperson for the Maine Department of Transportation, said the department does remove items, including campsites, from state rights-of-way for safety reasons, typically in response to a request or complaint from a municipality, police or a business.

He said the department cleared three spots where people had been camping near the Forest Avenue and Interstate 295 intersection Wednesday, but did not have any details about the case described by Neal. In general, Merrill said, the department tries to give people time to gather their belongings if asked to clear an area.

Brandi R., at the camp where she is staying in Portland on Thursday, said she’s been unable to find an affordable place to live since she became homeless four months ago. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Brandi, who did not want her last name published because she did not want people to criticize her ex-husband because she is homeless, was among the group that moved to the edge of Deering Oaks. She said she became homeless about four months ago because her landlord in Windham had failed to properly maintain the trailer she was living in, and as a result, she could no longer use her Section 8 voucher there.

Brandi said she’s been unable to find an affordable place to live since then and that she and her boyfriend are not able to stay at the city’s shelter because he was kicked out after the two of them got into an argument, and they want to stay together.

“What do they expect us to do?” she said. “We have nowhere to go.”

Related Headlines

Comments are not available on this story.