An outreach worker pulls a cart of supplies through a homeless encampment along the Fore River Parkway Trail in Portland in July as part of the city’s Encampment Crisis Response Team. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

Since its inception last spring, Portland’s Encampment Crisis Response Team has worked to shut down homeless encampments and move people into shelter. But with none left in the city, the future of the group is in limbo.

The Homeless Services Center has seen a record number of intakes this month after the last encampment was swept in early January. But many people are still sleeping outdoors, scattered in lesser-known parts of the city, and those on the encampment response team are looking at ways to adapt their mission.

“The true nature of the ECRT work is only really in place when there are encampments and we don’t have shelter capacity,” said city spokesperson Jessica Grondin, noting that is no longer the case. Ever since the city opened a shelter for asylum seekers, the general shelter has consistently had beds available.

The team was formed last spring after encampment sweeps sparked debate about how to best respond to the growing number of people living outside. More than a dozen nonprofit service providers have been involved, along with a variety of city departments, including health and human services, police and fire. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development has also participated.

The goal of the group was to take a “coordinated approach” to homelessness, bringing private groups and local government together.

“There were a lot of good things that came from the ECRT work – improved communication and coordination of services,” said Grondin.


“It allowed us the space to come together and work in a more coordinated way, even if we sometimes had differing views about what that should look like,” said Karen Turgeon, vice president of programs at The Opportunity Alliance and a member of the team.

The team has continued to meet over the last few weeks and a big topic of conversation has been “restructuring,” and how to continue their work, Turgeon said.

“Homelessness is still a large need. There are still people who are not in shelters and not in encampments. There are people walking the street at night. So as a group, we are still trying to help those people,” said Turgeon. “But the work will look different without the focus being on encampments.”

Portland city workers clear a large homeless encampment at Harbor View Park on Jan. 2. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

In some ways it can be more difficult to provide service without encampments because homeless people are not centralized. And outreach workers who regularly work with the homeless community say they have lost touch with some of the people who were camping at Harbor View.

While many went into shelter, the ones who didn’t have been tough to find.

“We’re able to work with folks who go into the shelter, but we’ve disconnected with some folks. Some people have gone on to other housing situations, like staying with friends or something like that,” said Bob Avery, an outreach worker at Preble Street.



The city counted 70 tents at the park before it was cleared on Jan. 2, but about a third of them appeared to be empty, Grondin said at the time.

Between Jan. 2 and Jan. 9, 76 new clients checked in to the city’s shelter, 25 of them from the encampment, according to shelter director Jason Chan. And for the most part, people are staying, he said.

Of the 157 new clients who have checked into the shelter since Jan. 2, only 23 have stayed for fewer than four nights, Chan said.

“Everybody besides those 23 have been staying,” said Chan.

For months, the shelter struggled to convince people to stay, but as the weather grew colder and the city ramped up outreach work, that changed.


“I think having more people come in and spread the word about what it’s actually like in here has really helped,” said Chan. “We’re very responsive to the feedback we get from guests. We try to do everything we can do to make this as comfortable of a place as possible.”

This winter, Greater Portland Health, which operates a clinic at the shelter, started offering medication assisted treatment for addiction. Now, guests who struggle with substance use disorder can access suboxone and methadone, which Chan also thinks has made a big difference.


While there is no reliable data tracking the whereabouts of everyone who was living in the encampment, there is agreement that a significant percentage of campers did go into some form of shelter – the city shelter, another private shelter, or staying with friends or family. But some continue to live outside.

Avery said some of his clients are sleeping in doorways or on benches throughout the city, moving to a new spot each night. Others have sought refuge on the Fore River trails. There are a smattering of tents along the river there where a few have decided to settle for the winter. In the woods behind the Lowe’s parking lot on Brighton Avenue is the most significant encampment left in Portland. At least two people from Harbor View made their way there after the sweep.

That’s where Chris and his wife went after they left the park. The encampment stretches far back into the woods, tents are spread far apart and art hangs from the trees. It has been around for a year.


“I’d heard there’d be an encampment back here,” said Chris, 30, who declined to share his last name. The couple spent several months camping in Harbor View with their dogs. But when they heard about the sweep they knew they needed to find somewhere more permanent.

Others living there said they seldom interact with the police or city officials.

Portland police officers watch as people pack their belongings, including Amber Lesperance, 35, center, before the city cleared the homeless encampment at Harbor View park on Tuesday. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

“It’s really nice people here. It’s a lot better,” said Chris. “We really pick up after ourselves, we burn our trash, we mind our business but help each other.” During a recent storm, Chris’ tent flooded and the other campers helped him dig it out of the mud and build a platform to keep it dry.

“I hope they don’t make us move again,” he said.


For now, the encampment team is doing what it can to get people into stable housing. More and more that means working with people at the shelter, instead of those living in a tent.


Even though the group may function differently going forward, Turgeon hopes that at the very least it will continue to facilitate coordination between its members.

“There’s been a big benefit in how it brought us all together and I think as far as servicing those who are unhoused, it’s allowed us to get some folks into shelter,” she said.

The fate of the team will likely become clearer in the coming weeks. Grondin said the city will work with the council’s Health and Human Services Committee to determine the best way for the team to move forward. When the Portland City Council made a list of priorities for the upcoming year in December, addressing homelessness was at the top.

Should encampments return to Portland when the weather warms, it’s not clear what the group would do.

“Right now we are focused on the situation in front of us,” said Turgeon.

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