Gary Crosby, 32 steps into his tent at the homeless encampment off Commercial Street in Portland on Tuesday. Crosby said  he has to use a propane heater to stay warm in the winter, despite the danger of fire. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

A stiff breeze buffeted the sides of Gary Crosby’s tent Tuesday afternoon as he moved his propane tank and covered it with a blanket.

The small propane heater inside his tent is his only source of heat as overnight temperatures in Portland start to drop below freezing. He knows it’s not the safest option.

“It’s the only way to stay warm in the tent during the night,” Crosby, 32, said while standing outside his tent near Commercial Street and the Casco Bay Bridge. “If you don’t have one, you freeze.”

Crosby and others living in a large encampment near the bridge say although they worry about safety and are keenly aware of the danger of using small stoves and heaters inside, they also know the dangers the bitter cold brings.

Last weekend, two people in Portland and Sanford were found dead after their tents caught on fire. State officials are still working to determine the cause and manner of those deaths.

The person found early Sunday morning in Portland was a 31-year-old man who was living in the encampment alongside Interstate 295 north at Exit 7, but an official identification could not be made without a DNA match from an out-of-state relative, according to police. Officials have not identified the Sanford victim, who was living in a yurt-style tent near Eagle Drive. Both were living in isolated areas, away from larger encampments.


Crosby, who is from Bridgton, said he also spent last winter living outside. He’s heard of people having close calls with propane heaters, usually when a pilot light has gone out and “before you know it, you smell the propane,” he said.

Portland fire Division Chief Sean Donaghue said the department has responded to at least three fires in tents during the past few months, including one a couple of weeks ago on Munjoy Hill where three tents caught fire. It is dangerous to use any kind of open flame or heat source in tents, which are made from synthetic material that is very flammable, he said.

“All of that stuff burns remarkably quickly,” he said. “We want people to be safe, but we also don’t want them to be exposed to the harsh Maine winter.”

Marina, left and a man who didn’t want to give his name, stand outside their tents at the homeless encampment off Commercial Street in Portland on Tuesday. The man said he doesn’t use a heater and usually just bundles up in his tent. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Donaghue said the fire department doesn’t do specific outreach about heating, but its mobile medical outreach unit does work with people in the encampments to try to get them into shelter.

When someone dies or is injured in a tent fire, it is sad and hard for everyone involved, he said.

“We don’t want this to happen to people and we don’t want people exposed to these threats – fire, cold, exposure,” Donaghue said. “This is why we’re trying to hard to get people to shelter.”



When the temperature drops and it’s a struggle to stay warm, Crosby said he hunkers down in his tent because “there aren’t many places you can really go.”

This year the city has established an emergency warming shelter at the First Parish Unitarian Universalist Church at 425 Congress St. It has a capacity of 75 people.

The shelter is run through a partnership with the city, Grace Street Ministries and Greater Portland Peer Services, according to the Rev. Norman Allen of First Parish. It is funded with a grant from MaineHousing.

The temperature threshold was amended this year to activate emergency warming shelter when the daytime high is 20 degrees or below, or when there are 10 inches of snow, according to the city’s homeless winter emergency response plan. Last year the threshold was zero degrees.

The shelter also will offer peer support services, harm reduction services, emergency medical care, a clothing closet, housing assistance and a vaccination clinic. Preble Street and Maine Meal Assistance will provide three meals each day, according to the church.


A 31-year-old man living in a tent at the park said he knows about the warming shelter and other places where he can go, but he usually just bundles up as much as possible in his tent. The man, who did not want to give his name to protect his privacy, was wearing multiple jackets, vests and shirts, some of which he said were donated by someone who stopped by the encampment this week.

The man said he doesn’t use a propane heater, but believes they are relatively safe.

Bruce Cavallaro, who is living outside for his fifth winter, said he recently got a new propane heater from a local pastor. It was stolen three days ago — the second time a heater has been stolen from him, he said. He had marked the heater to show it was his and searched for it at the encampment, but believes it was taken by someone who isn’t staying there.

Cavallaro, a veteran, said he went to the nearby Veterans Administration building and to Preble Street to get more sleeping bags to use until he can find a way to get a new heater. He recently got a better tent, which he set up under a tree and behind other tents at the edge of the encampment.

Bruce Cavallaro sits at the entrance of his tent as he organizes donated items. To the left is the box of a heater that Cavallaro said was one of two that have been stolen from him so far this season. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Cavallaro said he has had a fear of fire ever since his cousin, Portland firefighter Joseph Cavallaro Jr., died in the line of duty in 1980. He worries about himself and others who have to use heaters in small spaces full of flammable materials. When he does have a propane heater, he stays up all night to watch it.

“Fire is an animal. It eats, it breathes, it moves around,” Cavallaro said while sitting in his tent, next to the empty box for the heater that had been stolen from him.

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