BIDDEFORD — While cities like Sanford and Biddeford are facing rising numbers of people living in tents, much of the discussion surrounding homelessness in Maine has focused on Portland — and that remained true during a panel at the University of New England’s President’s Forum Series on Feb. 28.

The panel, which was held at UNE’s Biddeford Campus, included Danielle West, Portland’s city manager, Ali Lovejoy, vice president of mission advancement at Preble Street, and Cullen Ryan, the executive director of Community Housing of Maine.

Community Housing of Maine is a supportive housing provider and Preble Street is a social work agency with a strong focus on housing and housing insecurity.

Courtni Jeffers, an assistant clinical professor of public health at UNE, moderated the talk.

Jeffers asked the group to reflect on a proposal considered by Portland City Council last year that would have legalized camping on public land for the winter, effectively ending sweeps of homeless encampments in the city. The proposal, which was not enacted, was introduced in November.

After a series of sweeps last year, Portland removed the city’s largest and final homeless encampment at Harbor View Park in January.


Ryan said that bringing people inside and housing them in shelters is the answer, indicating that he did not agree with the proposal to allow camping on public land.

“That is the right antidote, to have people indoors, and not grow to a level of complacency that somehow it’s acceptable to have people out of doors at all,” he said.

Lovejoy addressed sweeps directly in her answer. “I want there to be safe shelter and, better yet, housing for everybody. And yet, when we are faced with the question of whether or not the appropriate or best way to handle the question of encampments is by sweeping them, by criminalizing people who are in encampments, I personally and Preble Street have come down on the side of no,” she said.

Activists and faith leaders have decried sweeps as inhumane. The two Portland lawmakers who introduced the measure to allow public land camping, Councilors Anna Treverrow and Roberto Rodriguez, argued that sweeps do not help the homelessness crisis.

West sent a memo to the City Council arguing against the proposal after it was introduced. It “is likely to have far-reaching impacts on city operations and staff, as well as the general public,” she wrote, according to reporting from the Portland Press Herald.

During the panel, West said that the City Council struggled with the decision, and that she and staff “felt strongly that getting people inside was the right thing to do.”


The city mounted a push to free up shelter beds in the city’s Homelessness Services Center ahead of the winter’s first major snowfall in December, said West.

Later, in response to comments by Lovejoy, West said that the city’s process for removing homeless encampments did not include “criminalization.”

“No criminalization happened. We had zero arrests. That wasn’t in any of the resolutions we’ve ever done. Staff provide significant notice, in some cases many weeks … And then we’re very careful about belongings. We work with people, we store belongings, we itemize them,” she said.

“I have a hard time with the word criminalization because that in my experience here in Portland, Maine, at least, was not the case, at all,” she added.

West also said that she resisted setting a date for the city to clear the Harbor View Encampment, but once she did, the city saw greater movement into shelter beds.

In addition to discussion of specific steps taken by Portland, the three spoke about what they see as the greatest barriers to alleviating homelessness, where they found common ground.


Lovejoy highlighted lack of funding and how services are often inflexible and do not meet the needs of the varied challenges facing the homeless population.

For example, low barrier shelters are one of the best ways to serve people because they do not present hurdles like showing an ID or requiring sobriety, she said. Preble Street operates two of the five privately-operated low barrier shelters in the state, Lovejoy said.

Toward the end of the panel, she highlighted the success of Preble Street’s veterans housing program as an example of a service that is tailored to meet a population’s needs at scale.

West spoke about funding challenges and the difficulties of working within a bureaucracy that must balance the needs of different constituencies.

“We as a municipality can’t be everything to everyone, ” she said.”It’s a tough pill to swallow, and it makes the council’s job when they have to make decisions on this issue very difficult.”

Ryan highlighted bureaucratic silos as a key challenge. “The solutions are going to involve … having all parts of our system talk to one another and work together and solve the problem. And unfortunately, our system is set up to sort of point in different directions.”


City officials from both Saco and Biddeford attended the event, including Biddeford Mayor Marty Grohman, Saco City Councilor Mike Burman, and Biddeford City Councilor Liam LaFountain.

“I couldn’t help but notice that the panel was largely focused on Portland. However, the issue of homelessness and encampments is also present and growing in Saco and Biddeford,” said Councilor Mike Burman in email to the Courier after the event.

“I am taking this problem seriously and hoping for a proactive approach, finding solutions for the unhoused before it reaches the crisis levels seen in Portland,” he added.

Saco and Biddeford have signaled they are actively thinking about solutions to the homelessness crisis. An outside consultant recently conducted a study of the two cities to take a closer look at homelessness and potential solutions. The results of the study were presented to the City Councils earlier this year.

The report offered an array of suggestions, including encouraging building accessory dwelling units, or ADUs, for the purposes of housing homeless individuals, and creating a Community Response Coordinating Council, a formal body with representation from all sectors of the community to better coordinate care.

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