As someone who has worked for the past eight years as a street outreach pastor in the homeless community here in Portland, I want to take issue with a couple of points raised in a Nov. 29 front page article (“Portland’s homeless population often relies on dangerous propane heaters to stay warm”) – one that is explicitly stated, the other implied.

First, what was implied. Even though the report acknowledged that the cause of the fires that killed two people in the Greater Portland area is still under investigation, the sub-headline read: “The recent deaths of two people in Portland and Sanford underscore Maine’s struggle with homelessness as well as the danger of using heaters in tents.”

This implies that propane tent heaters are inherently dangerous, even though there is absolutely no evidence that any fires in the community have been caused by propane heaters. In fact, the box of the propane heater depicted in the photograph with Bruce Cavallaro specifically states that the heater is designed for use in tents, and that it has safety features such as a self-extinguishing protection system and a tip-over shutdown system.

What is dangerous in a tent is an open flame such as a candle, or when, last year, people in Portland were burning hand sanitizer to stay warm. The only tent fire that I have direct knowledge of this year was started when someone fell asleep and knocked over a candle they were burning.

The other issue that I have is the article states that “this year the city has established an emergency warming shelter.” That is not accurate. Although the now former Department of Health and Human Services Director Kristen Dow and I began talking about a warming shelter back in August, it was clear that the city had no funds, no indoor space and no staff. Although we very much appreciate the support of the city in this endeavor, it was the work of people not on the city payroll that made this happen – funding was provided by the state (Maine Housing Authority), the space was provided by First Parish church and the staff will be provided by Greater Portland Peer Services.

I understand that quibbling over who gets the credit in an emergency situation can seem petty. But the fact is that articles like this simply reinforce the inaccurate trope that the city of Portland is doing everything in its power to help the homeless population, including taking the lead in the creation of an emergency winter warming shelter, whereas those in the private sector (social service agencies and faith-based groups) are not only enabling the criminal and antisocial tendencies of the homeless but are also inadvertently providing them with the means to blow themselves up.


Although I believe the city has good intentions, its principal tool in the management of the large homeless population is to sweep encampments, further dispersing the population and making it more likely that they will die in isolation, as did the folks in the fires on Marginal Way and in Sanford.

Lost in all of this polemic between the city and homeless advocates is the cooperation that is going on.

Outreach workers from both the city and social service agencies are going all in on encouraging campers to move to the Homeless Services Center as beds become available. And even though outgoing Mayor Kate Snyder claimed that the Encampment Crisis Response Team process “didn’t work,” the fact is it laid the groundwork for cooperation between the city and all the other folks working with this community that made the creation of an Emergency Warming Shelter possible.

So, let’s focus on the positive, on the cooperation that is happening, rather than on the dueling narratives. After all, we’re all on the same page when it comes to outcome: Nobody wants to lose anyone else to the unforgiving challenges of a Maine winter outdoors.`

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