Donald Roberts carries an air mattress to his tent on the Western Prom in Portland to put it away as it starts to rain on Tuesday. Roberts started tenting in the area in May after his 83-year-old mother, whom he was caring for, died. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

When he found himself homeless in Portland about a month ago, Donald Roberts knew where he would go. He set up a tent with two inflatable mattresses on the edge of the Western Promenade overlooking the woods and nearby cemetery.

“This is the first place I thought of because I grew up in this neighborhood,” he said.

Soon after setting up camp, Roberts was befriended by a man from a local church who helped him find a job in Scarborough, where he plans to move. But he realizes not everyone is so fortunate.

“There needs to be more housing and more support for people like us,” said Roberts, who became homeless after his mother died and he lost his job and apartment. “There needs to be more people to bring out food and water. People need help.”

Around Portland, encampments like the one Roberts has been staying at on the Western Prom have proliferated this spring amid a high demand for shelter from both an influx of asylum seekers and those who are unhoused by circumstance.

The city is currently housing about 1,200 people per night using shelter space and hotels, but has struggled to meet the need.


“We cannot meet the demand for emergency shelter beds, even though we have 654 hosted and staffed in the city,” Mayor Kate Snyder told the City Council this week. “As a result, more and more circumstantially unhoused people – more than we’ve ever seen before – have been sleeping outside in tents.” 


As of Friday, Snyder said the city believes that there are at least 130 tents people are living in around the city. That’s about the same number as city staff reported in mid-May when the city decided to clear a large camp of more than 80 tents along the Bayside Trail due to health and safety concerns that had arisen as the encampment grew.

The Bayside encampment was a large and visible sign of the homelessness crisis. Many of the people living there have dispersed to other, smaller encampments around the city.

More than 30 tents are pitched on the edge of the Department of Transportation Park and Ride lot on Marginal Way in Portland on Tuesday. Many of the homeless people relocated there after the Bayside Trail encampment was cleared last month. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

The Western Prom, a park and ride on Marginal Way and the Fore River Parkway Trail are some locations where new tents have popped up since the Bayside camp was cleared. A handful of people also are camping on the outskirts of Deering Oaks.

Matthew, who would not give his last name, was camping on the Bayside Trail and lost a lot of his belongings when the trail was cleared. Then he was kicked out of another site on state property.


“I don’t know where they expect us to go,” he said.

He also tried the park and ride, but said too many people there were stealing from each other. Now at the Fore River Parkway, he said it’s been hard to keep the area clean and avoid drugs while living among others who are using.

“When I get up and step out of my tent and there’s three dudes over there shooting dope in their necks, it’s kind of hard to stay sober,” Matthew said. “There isn’t one person out here that’s sober.”

Bruce Cavallaro, who also was living on the Bayside Trail, is now at the park and ride. He said people are facing the same challenges in the new spot, with the lack of bathrooms and trash disposal creating a big problem.

“It’s the same thing. It’s just continuing over here,” he said. “We just want to be able to use the bathroom and try to keep things clean.”



Like in Bayside, the new encampments have drawn complaints from some neighbors and businesses. Police also have seen upticks in calls for service.

Since May 16, the Portland Police Department has received 41 calls for service at the park and ride, compared to six in the same time frame last year. There have been 51 calls at the Fore River Parkway, compared to three last year, and five calls on the Western Prom, compared to two last year.

Rosa Scarcelli, who lives along the Western Prom, said neighbors there have had a few instances where they’ve called police for things like needles and bloody rags on the ground and someone trying to break into a home.

A homeless encampment on a spur trail of the Fore River Trail in Portland on Tuesday. City officials are looking to create a response team to connect homeless people with services before clearing encampments. The Fore River encampment is proposed to be the task force’s first area to focus on. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

She said the city should focus on finding transitional or permanent housing for asylum seekers, who are occupying much of the space in the city’s homeless shelters currently, so that beds can be freed up for the circumstantially homeless.

“I think what’s happening now is we don’t have anywhere for people to go, so we’re just moving them around town or they’re moving themselves around town, and it feels very unsupportive for everyone involved,” Scarcelli said.

Harley Lewin, who lives near Harbor View Memorial Park, told the council during its meeting Monday that he was assaulted by people staying in tents at the park and feels it is unsafe to keep walking his dog there. He said the city should at least limit how many tents can be in one area.


“When you have people defecating in front of small children and you have needles being traded and used, it’s impossible to say this is humane,” Lewin said.


On Tuesday the city will hold a listening session from 5:30-8 p.m. at Ocean Gateway for members of the public, including those who are unhoused, to provide feedback on the response to encampments and talk about possible solutions.

City Councilor Mark Dion said some residents feel unsettled and even threatened by the encampments in their neighborhoods, and he wants the city to be able to reassure them that they are acting urgently to address it.

Bruce Cavallaro sits on a curb in the Department of Transportation Park and Ride lot along Marginal Way in Portland on Wednesday. He moved to the park and ride location soon after being displaced from the Bayside Trail encampment that the city cleared last month. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

“They feel that all we’ve done is reallocate the tent cities into smaller fragments,” Dion said at Monday’s meeting. “I understand why we did that, but I think it’s incumbent on us to communicate how we’re going to move forward with engaging not just the larger encampments, but also the smaller ones.”

The city has launched an Encampment Crisis Response Team, an idea that came out of discussions around the response to the Bayside Trail. The team, which met for the first time last week, will be tasked with working with larger encampments to coordinate outreach in advance of removals that may need to take place and to help transition people to shelters and permanent housing.


City Manager Danielle West said that the team will respond only to larger camps where health and safety issues have been identified. But she also wants to hear from the public about any general concerns they have.

West said she is convening weekly strategic planning meetings with departments in the city impacted by encampments.

“I told the team at the beginning, ‘I want you to come in with any idea. We’re just going to spitball,’ ” she said. “Let’s try this or that. We are trying to focus on this. We know it’s something that impacts the public, the unhoused themselves and almost every department. It’s a big issue and one we’re committed to.”

Director of Health and Human Services Kristen Dow told the council that the crisis response team, which includes representatives of the city, as well as community organizations, is just getting set up and will be holding more meetings this week. She said the team expects to start its work at the Fore River Parkway Trail, where the city says there are about 49 tents.

The team has an informational page on the city’s website and Dow wants to incorporate data on it as people are moved from campsites into shelter or housing.

“We also want to protect the unhoused and be careful of what information we share,” she said. “But we will share the data and create some sort of dashboard. I’m just not sure what that will look like.”

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