Desirae Rowe, 35, stands wrapped in a blanket on Somerset Street in Portland on a cold Nov. 1 morning. Earlier, Rowe left a homeless encampment on Marginal Way, which was swept by workers from MaineDOT and the city of Portland. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Desirae Rowe wakes before sunrise on Nov 1. She crawls from the tent she has been sharing with a friend and begins packing everything she owns into a small shopping cart.

She folds her mostly unwashed clothes and zips them into a gym bag. She organizes her art supplies in a tote and ties it tight so she won’t lose any pencils or paint. She wedges her Pikachu stuffed animal into the mass of belongings.

Desirae has known for weeks what is coming.

Signs all over the area have warned people living in the Marginal Way encampment that the site would be cleared on this day. She has been staying at the camp on and off for about six months. She is as ready as she can be.

This process of packing up and moving on has become all too familiar in recent months for hundreds of homeless people in Portland.

The encampments, where they gather in tents and makeshift shelters, are a source of fierce controversy and debate in the city.


Some say the sweeps further destabilize an already unstable population by separating people from their belongings, community and social-service resources. Others say the camps aren’t safe and that letting them grow unchecked is not fair to Portland’s housed residents.

Desirae Rowe and Paul Cann sit together for breakfast at an encampment on Somerset Street before city workers cleared the area. Breakfast included items from Holy Donut, which were provided by Milestone Recovery, Rowe said. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Outreach workers from the city’s Encampment Crisis Response Team, which formed in the spring, try to find people services and housing before an encampment is cleared. They get some into rehab programs and a few into longer-term housing. They convince some to go to the city shelter if only for a few days. But many, including Desirae, do not want to go. She can’t use drugs there, she says. And she’s afraid her things would be stolen.


Desirae doesn’t know where she’ll sleep next – she doesn’t even have her own tent – but she has a friend in Brunswick and thinks maybe if she can reach him, he’ll let her crash at his place for a few nights.

This is Desirae’s second encampment sweep. She was staying at Marginal Way earlier in the summer, but says she was raped there and was worried that her attacker would return. So she ditched her tent and found a new spot near Deering Oaks, where she made new friends. When the state cleared that camp in August, she went back to Marginal Way with those friends. She said she felt safer knowing they would protect her.

As she pushes her cart out of the encampment early on this brisk morning, others are just beginning to wake up and pack. She heads to a smaller settlement a few blocks away on Somerset Street, where people are also preparing to be swept. There, her friend Paul lets her charge her phone. They catch up for a bit before they realize the battery-powered charger isn’t working because it’s too cold.


Desirae decides to go to Planet Fitness. Her mom bought her a membership a few months ago so she’d have a place to take showers. Nearby, she stashes her cart behind some bushes so that no one will take it.

Before she goes inside, she peels off thick fleece pants to reveal spotless patterned leggings.

“I look extra homeless today,” she says, gesturing toward the bulky fleece. “This is the only place I get to feel normal. I don’t want to look homeless in there.”

Friends Tyler Linscott and Desirae Rowe comfort one another. Earlier, Linscott and Rowe left a homeless encampment on Marginal Way, which was swept by workers from MaineDOT and the city of Portland. Linscott, 30, is a veteran who served for six years in the Army, including combat in Iraq. He is a Bronze Star and Purple Heart recipient, he said. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Desirae decides against leaving her precious art supplies with the rest of her things outside the gym. She flips through her drawings. She draws colorful, funny images in a bright, cartoonish style – usually anthropomorphic animals. One of her favorites is a private investigator she calls Sergeant Ducky McQuackels. He holds a magnifying glass to his already large eyes and says “Trust me, I’m a Ducktective!?” in big bubble letters.

Desirae Rowe shows a drawing from her notebook. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Her art isn’t reserved for paper. She has tattooed herself dozens of times. The chemical formula for dopamine, a woman’s body, the phrase “still we rise” are inked on her arms, legs and hips. Some of the tattoos have uneven lines. They’re hand-drawn with what Desirae describes as a “crappy tattoo gun,” and clustered together like galaxies. One winds around her forearm.  Another dots her hip. She especially loves the one on her shoulder, a little blue alien named Stitch from her favorite Disney movie.

In the movie, Stitch falls to Earth, where he doesn’t fit in. He’s too hyper, too wild, and he looks strange. But a little girl named Lilo finds him in an animal shelter and they become family. They choose each other. Lilo repeatedly reminds Stitch that “Ohana means family, and family means nobody gets left behind or forgotten.” Desirae loves that part.



Desirae, who is 35, went into foster care at age 12. At 19, she got married to a man she says was abusive and landed her several times in the hospital. When she left him, she ended up on the street for a while – until she got a job with a traveling carnival, setting up and tearing down rides all over Maine and Massachusetts. She was pregnant at 21, but the dad was out of the picture before her daughter turned 1.

She named her daughter Kasen, which according to baby name lists means “pure.”

She tried to keep her and raise her, but it didn’t come easily.

“When I first gave birth, I was very detached,” she said. “I wasn’t like every other mom. I didn’t feel like I would die for my child. I just sort of took it as another fact of my life, another mouth I had to feed.”

A few years after Kasen was born, Desirae had her tubes tied.


“I didn’t want to have another accidental baby. I didn’t want to bring another child into this mess,” she said. “I have hated every day of my life. I don’t want a child to grow up and feel this pain.”

Desirae Rowe walks along York Street in Portland on her way to a different encampment under the Casco Bay Bridge. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

She raised Kasen until she was 5, grappling with her own trauma and working long hours. It took ages to build what felt like a normal mother-daughter connection. But when Kasen had to have her tonsils taken out, Desirae vividly remembers watching her eyes roll back in her head and her little limbs go limp as she was put under anesthesia.

Desirae knew her daughter was OK, but she was terrified.

“In that moment, I knew I’d give anything for her,” she said.  She can’t talk about it without crying.

Her second marriage was more stable, but her husband used drugs and died from a fentanyl overdose shortly after they moved to Arizona for a fresh start.

Back in Maine, Desirae temporarily gave her mother custody of Kasen, who she said was exhibiting behaviors she couldn’t handle as she struggled with her own mental health issues. She says she called the state and begged  to get into counseling with her daughter and get help. But she says she was told the only path forward would be to open a case, which could put her parental rights at risk.


When her mother could no longer care for Kasen, Desirae took her daughter back for a while. She rented an apartment in Portland for $2,000 a month and worked 80-hour weeks in the kitchen at Andy’s Old Port Pub.

She barely had time to see her daughter, so she asked Kasen’s other grandparents to help. But she says they turned out to be abusive, and Kasen ended up in foster care – at about the same age Desirae was when she entered the system.

Desirae Rowe brushes her hair while sitting alongside Somerset Street on Nov. 1. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

“That little girl is so goddamned damaged now. I blame myself for it every day. I can’t help it,” Desirae said through tears. “I wish I could have done more for her. She’s just as damaged as I am if not worse.”

Now, she barely has contact with her daughter, who recently turned 15, though she dreams of one day having custody again.

Desirae’s third husband introduced her to meth three years ago, and she hasn’t been able to kick the habit.

Since she started using, her dad died by suicide and her mom has had serious health problems, she says.


Desirae doesn’t think she could cope with the reality of her life without methamphetamines.

Living outside, she said, is too cold, too uncomfortable, too stressful, too painful to cope with while sober: “What’s the point of trying to get clean out here?”

Desirae Rowe mixes powdered methamphetamine with bottled water in a syringe before injecting it on Nov. 1 in Portland. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer


Desirae leaves the gym after about an hour and a half, her phone now fully charged. Back on Somerset Street in the cold, she wraps herself in a blanket as her friends pack up their things. She puts her fleece pants back on and adds a sweatshirt, then another. She moves to sit in the sun but still shivers, her lips blue, her teeth chattering.

No more cracking jokes or making conversation or showing off her tattoos. She lies on the grass, cocooned in the blanket, looks at a photo of her daughter and cries.

“She is why I breathe. She’s so goddamn beautiful. I can’t believe I made this child,” she sobs from her nest on the curb.


At 1:55 p.m., she decides to do meth. She injects it these days. She says it’s the only way it works. She cuts the drug with water and rubs the little tube between her hands to warm it. She ties a red band around her arm, which cuts through the face of Stitch, smiling from her shoulder.

“You think I want to do it? No, I need it.” she says.

Desirae has a caseworker at Spurwink, but she missed her last appointment because she didn’t have a ride to get there. She’s worried the caseworker will drop her soon.

Desiree Rowe smokes a cigarette while she lies in the grass alongside Somerset Street in Portland. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Just after shooting up, she flips through more drawings. One black-and-white cat stands out. Instead of smooth, blocky shapes, it’s made of squiggly lines drawn in pen. She’s titled it “Meth Cat,” and says this is how it can feel to be on meth, like you’re vibrating.

She starts to warm up again and puts away her sketchbook. She takes off her blanket, folds it and tucks it into her cart. She calls out to her friend Tyler Linscott, saying it’s time to start walking. He slings his backpack over his shoulder.

Desirae hasn’t been able to reach her friend in Brunswick, so she is heading to the growing encampment at Harbor View Memorial Park. She trusts Tyler and is planning to stay in his tent for the night.


Tyler is a veteran. He has a traumatic brain injury that makes it hard for him to work. As the two get ready to leave, a box truck from Preble Street arrives and workers explain they can cart everyone’s stuff to Harbor View. Desirae hands her things over without much fuss. Two Preble Street workers lift her cart and all its contents into the back of the truck.

Friends Tyler Linscott and Desirae Rowe kill time outside the Circle K on Commercial Street before moving into a homeless encampment under the Casco Bay Bridge. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

“Don’t lose my art supplies!” she shouts to the workers as they load up.

The hatch closes, and she and Tyler start walking. They’ll be among several dozen people from Marginal Way making their way to Harbor View, where tents now line the edge of the park that’s on Commercial Street and cover much of the green space on the hill above.

It’s the last large encampment left in the city. As of the end of November, it had about 225 tents, according to the city’s homelessness tracker.


Desirae is back to cracking jokes. She says her friends in the encampment call her “Daddy Dez,” because she’s always willing to share food, cigarettes, drugs – anything she has.


She takes her fleece pants off again for the walk. She says she’s happy for the next half-hour or so not to be pushing a cart, because for that short time, nobody will be able to tell she’s homeless.

Desirae Rowe and Tyler Linscott walk alongside a homeless encampment under the Casco Bay Bridge. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

She and Tyler wander through the Old Port, past restaurants, bars, a luxury bridal shop. It’s a crisp, sunny day, and for a moment they are just two friends, walking through the city.

They decide to stop at the Circle K, where they each buy drinks but have to pool their change with a fellow traveler to afford a pack of cigarettes, which they split.

Desirae Rowe waits in line to purchase an energy drink at the Circle K on Commercial Street before moving into an encampment under the Casco Bay Bridge. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

He asks to borrow Desirae’s phone to access his bank account. While he fiddles with it, Desirae doodles with a silver marker on Tyler’s shaved head. She draws devil horns, and the two laugh. The guy with her phone apologizes for taking so long and says he can’t remember his password.

“That’s OK,” Desirae tells him, “I’m in no rush to get to the next circle of hell.”

Eventually the gas-station manager comes outside and shoos them away. The three trudge the final few blocks to the encampment, where Preble Street has dropped off their stuff in a grassy area.


Tyler pitches his tent, and Desirae starts removing clothes from a bag. She shakes them out in the fresh air.

“At this point, this is considered cleaning my laundry,” she says with a laugh. “I hate having dirty clothes, but there isn’t anywhere for me to wash them here.”

Desiree Rowe and Tyler Linscott arrive at a homeless encampment under the Casco Bay Bridge. Their belongings were transported from an encampment on Somerset Street by outreach workers from Preble Street. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

By the time she’s unpacked, it has been a few hours since she last used. She says she is going to look for her drug dealer before her first night at the new encampment.

She says she feels nervous about the new space, but she’s with friends who have her back.

She hopes she’ll be safe, at least until she has to move again.

Desirae Rowe, 35, exhales cigarette smoke while sitting in her tent at Harbor View Park in Portland on Nov. 21, three weeks after moving to the encampment after the city forcibly removed her from Marginal Way. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

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