It is critical that Portland not accept encampments, and most importantly, not sanction them. I’ve watched multiple communities tread this path. There is no coming back. Municipal leaders will all tell you sanctioning encampments was a devastating mistake.

A section of the encampment under the Casco Bay Bridge off of Commercial Street in Portland on Thursday. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographe

Unless people have been provided feasible options for housing or emergency shelter, sweeping encampments is not a best practice either.

Seeing people displaced has led some leaders to consider safeguarding everyone’s right to stay outside. That would be a terrible turn. The agonizing dilemma is understandable; many municipalities are overwhelmed by the sudden onset of encampments. They are desperate for solutions.

Portland should not be one of these municipalities. We have a solution right at hand. Portland can make emergency shelter available and lower barriers to bring everyone inside.

But this will take a mindset. Rather than conceding that people should attempt to live outside, all of us should insist that all people deserve to live inside. Housing is the goal, but emergency shelter is a safe interim step, and it is within reach.

I have come to believe that when the city changed its long-standing policy that no one will be unsheltered by capping the single adult shelter (May 2022), we planted the seeds of large encampments. We had about 80 people unsheltered last winter, an unprecedented number. With the arrival of single adult asylum seekers (5% in December, 70% by April), the transition to the new Homeless Service Center left about 50 chronically homeless people outside and the foundation of the encampment near Trader Joe’s.


That encampment grew to 80 because of what I call the carnival effect – when there is a gathering, people want in. When there is substance use and no structure or accountability, people join the gathering and, sadly, become easy prey. Encampments become targets for human trafficking and other abuses; terrible things unfold.

In the seven months between March and October of 2023, Portland went from 85 tents to 282. Ask cities on the West Coast; encampments grow exponentially.

Ironically, shelter occupancy doesn’t.

In 1987, following an encampment and protests, City Manager Bob Ganley decreed no one would be unsheltered in Portland, Maine. That decree stood for 35 years, and the shelter adapted to ebbs and flows along the way. What happened to the numbers? The Oxford Street Shelter initially served between 60 and 80 people and reached its final capacity of 154 beds in 1998. The Homeless Services Center now serves 208. Given this is a 36-year span, the phrase, “If you build it, they will come,” is not the right fit. The opposite is true; a cap on shelter capacity breeds encampments, which truly draw people in.

It is since shelter capacity was capped that our problems unfolded.

So here is what we do.


1. Return to a “no one will be unsheltered” policy and temporarily increase capacity to meet the current needs.

2. Allow the Homeless Services Center to do what was intended to do, efficiently help people secure housing and stability, and empty itself out.

3. Prioritize beds for people unsheltered so we can truly insist that everyone is inside.

On Nov. 13, next Monday, Portland City Council can and should add 50 beds. Better yet, overachieve that and allow the shelter to serve people within its safety capacity but consider that an emergency. Rally the community to empty the shelter through coordinated services and housing.

Later this month, a 179-bed facility will open to properly serve single adult asylum seekers – freeing up an estimated 131 beds at the center immediately. Fifty added means 180 beds will suddenly be available for people outside. That’s a game changer.

Let’s make encampments (and sweeps) disappear and never return. Let’s safely shelter people and help them secure proper housing. Let’s not be complicit in people living outside – let’s make that unacceptable in Maine. Portland can solve this and other communities can replicate its success.

There is no better win than to have everyone live inside.

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