Kelly O’Brien, 43, wipes her eye while packing her belongings in Deering Oaks on Thursday morning. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Kelly O’Brien was sorting through a pile of clothes outside her tent near the Interstate 295 Exit 6 off-ramp in Portland Thursday morning. Nearby was a small table with cut flowers. O’Brien stopped and held up a broken drinking glass.

“I was excited about that,” she said with disappointment.

The 43-year-old was among dozens of people who scrambled to pack their belongings as the Maine Department of Transportation and Department of Public Safety cleared an encampment of around 45 tents near Deering Oaks park. Until Thursday, it was one of the largest homeless encampments in the city.

“I don’t know how they expect us to pack up our lives in 24 hours,” O’Brien said. “These are our homes.”

The clearing came as Portland is struggling to respond to large numbers of people living outside. Currently, there are people living in about 265 tents around the city, according to a city dashboard, up from 130 in June.

And the city is preparing to clear another camp at the Fore River Parkway Trail next week – the first site to be closed under the new Encampment Crisis Response Team. A Sept. 6 deadline to clear it was set months ago.


The back-to-back sweeps have prompted concern and pushback from community groups working with homeless people, though city and state officials defended their decisions to clear the sites Thursday.

Brandon Tracy, 34, drags his tent out of Deering Oaks on Thursday, when the Maine Department of Transportation and Department of Public Safety cleared the homeless encampment. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

“From the very beginning, the deadline was established so the city and community partners would proactively move their attention from one place to the next,” Mayor Kate Snyder said.

“The focus is on getting people into shelter or housing, and not elongating the period of time they’re outdoors. … We want to make sure the (crisis response team’s) efforts are focused so people are out of tents by the time we’re into cold weather.”


As the clearing near Deering Oaks started around 8 a.m. Thursday, people struggled to fill shopping carts, backpacks and plastic bags with their belongings.

O’Brien said she had been at the encampment for about two months. She found out it was going to be cleared via word of mouth from another person at the encampment. “I have no idea where I’ll go or what I’ll do,” she said.


By 11:30 a.m., a few people lingered at the site and crews were going through tents that appeared to be abandoned.

Department of Transportation workers gather trash into plastic bags while clearing a homeless encampment at Deering Oaks on Thursday. The agency said the encampment was a safety risk because of a nearby highway off-ramp. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Maine DOT spokesperson Paul Merrill said in an email that the agency began notifying people of the plans to clear it at 8 a.m. Wednesday. They also notified the city.

“These encampments were a few feet away from traffic exiting the northbound side of the interstate at Exit 6, posing a serious risk to the safety of unhoused individuals and travelers,” Merrill said. “We are trying to avoid a pedestrian being struck by a vehicle or inadvertently causing a crash.”

He said the state is monitoring other encampments on state-owned property in Portland and assessing safety risks, and that the department had no updates about the park and ride on Marginal Way, half of which has been cordoned off as an area for homeless people.

Paul Cann, 49, said he has been homeless since getting out of prison for assaulting a man who broke into his ex-wife’s house. “When I got out, there was all this … COVID and stuff,” Cann said as he folded up a tent.

He said the assault case makes landlords wary of renting to him. And he doesn’t want to go to the city’s new Homeless Services Center “because it’s like a jail.”


His friend, Allan Hill, went to the shelter recently but said he was told he’s a liability because he’s blind. Hill said he stayed for one night with a friend who helped him get around, and then left.

“It’s uncomfortable,” said Hill, who was staying at the park and ride with his wife, Christy, earlier this summer, but said he’s struggled since she went to jail.

Jessica Grondin, a spokesperson for the city, said staff were familiar with Hill’s case; he had been told at the shelter that one of the requirements is that guests must be able to use the bathrooms by themselves.

Allan Hill, who is blind and homeless, packs up tent poles at Deering Oaks on Thursday. He said he stayed at the city shelter for one night but was told he’s a liability. The city said it’s willing to work with him if he goes back. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

“He wasn’t told he couldn’t stay there, he was just told that’s one of the requirements,” she said, adding that staff are willing to work with Hill if he comes back and help connect with other resources in the community that could help.


Some outreach workers and community groups that work with homeless people have pushed back on the city’s Sept. 6 deadline to clear the Fore River Parkway Trail.


The response team, which was formed last spring in response to an 80-tent encampment in Bayside, has been working through the summer to find them shelter and housing.

As of Wednesday, there were about 49 people living along the trail, Grondin said. She said 15 people have been moved to a shelter or housing over the course of the team’s work.

Around 130 openings at the city shelter have come up and been offered to people there through the team’s efforts, Grondin said, though outreach workers have noted that the shelter is not a good fit for everyone and there are many reasons why people might not want to go, including not wanting to leave a partner or friend behind.

“Everybody is terrified and really scared and confused,” said Dani Laliberte, an outreach worker and team lead for the Opportunity Alliance’s PATH team. She said more time is needed and that the Encampment Crisis Response Team has been helpful in boosting communication between the city and nonprofits, but that clearing the camp next week could set back their work.

“We’ll need to relocate our unsheltered community once again,” Laliberte said. “Many of us go right back to how it felt when the Bayside Trail was swept. Fore River grew as a result of that sweep and it will happen again. Most likely they will go to several already existing encampments or go further into hiding, which can be unsafe.”

Dorothy Gooldrup, 25, poses for a portrait inside her tent at an encampment near the Fore River Parkway on Thursday. The city has announced it will clear the area next week. She says she is going to tour the city shelter on Friday, but isn’t sure if she will stay there. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Dorothy Gooldrup, who has been living at the Fore River with her boyfriend, said the city’s decision to move them out next week “kind of sucks,” but they are planning on leaving before the deadline comes. Gooldrup said she has been forced to move from state property before and she ended up losing a lot of her belongings. She said she was scheduled to tour the city’s shelter on Friday to see if she would want to go there.


“I’m nervous about it because I don’t know how it will be,” said Gooldrup, who said she didn’t like sleeping at the city’s old Oxford Street shelter because people had to sleep too close together. “If the shelter is nice then probably, yes (I will go there),” she said.

Andrew Bove, vice president of social work at the nonprofit social services provider Preble Street, said that if the clearing date is postponed the city and community groups could focus on finding more resources for people at the Fore River, such as an overflow shelter space.

“I’m worried about the rhetoric that people are turning down options they’re being offered,” Bove said. “Instead of shaming people for turning them down, we should look at the services and see if they’re correct. What’s working and not working and can those reasons be addressed?”

Cory Blake, 52, wheels some of his belongings out of a homeless encampment at Deering Oaks on Thursday. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

City officials said they have no plans to change the date.

“Not only have we had a lengthy period of time for this work, but there are other sites we need to perform the same work on and the timeline is getting closer and closer to when winter weather will be here,” Grondin said.

She said the team is expected to move its focus next to the Marginal Way park and ride and that in the meantime the city is addressing concerns at the shelter.

If people are worried they can’t store their belongings, for example, Grondin said there are lockers on site and the city is working with the nonprofit Commonspace – formerly Amistad – to provide additional storage. “People should talk to our staff and see what accommodations can be made,” she said.

The City Council is planning on holding a workshop on encampments on Sept 14. Snyder said they will discuss the work of the Encampment Crisis Response Team, as well as how the city and council can respond to the homelessness crisis.

Snyder said the city needs more mental health and substance use resources and housing. “There are so many factors. I really believe the city of Portland needs significant help to respond to the needs that have gotten bigger,” she said.

Related Headlines

Comments are not available on this story.