Maine House Speaker Rachel Talbot Ross (D-Portland) sponsored a bill Tuesday that would allow an “unhoused” person to avoid the legal consequences of committing criminal trespass and some cases of aggravated criminal trespass.
Speaker Talbot Ross’ bill, LD 1949, proposes to establish an affirmative defense to the prosecution of criminal trespass in cases where the “unhoused person” was “attempting to seek shelter” in the dwelling place, structure, place, cemetery, or burial ground the person entered.
An affirmative defense does not deny a crime was committed by the defendant, but rather attempts to prove exculpatory circumstances which may mitigate the criminal liability of the defendant, such as self defense, insanity, or entrapment.
According to the Maine State Housing Authority’s 2023 Point in Time report, 4,258 people were experiencing homelessness in Maine on January 24, 2023.
Of that total, 2,009 were in Talbot Ross’ own Cumberland County.
Talbot Ross represents Portland, where on Tuesday city officials began efforts to clean up the homeless encampment in the city’s Bayside neighborhood, which had become the home of almost 90 tents, posing serious health and safety concerns.
On Monday Portland’s newly appointed City Manager Danielle West sent a memo to Portland Mayor Kate Snyder, outlining the cleanup efforts and the homelessness crisis Portland is facing.
Although the City is meant to prohibit camping in public areas, in July 2022 city officials developed a “hands-off” policy approach to encampments when City-operated shelters are at capacity.
“As part of this ‘hands-off’ approach, encampments are only removed if and when their presence of conditions create public health or safety hazard,” West said.
Despite multiple warnings of the Bayside trail encampment being scheduled for removal, it continued to grow in size in recent weeks, making the situation untenable.
“While we are working on a number of long-term solutions to create housing and shelter capacity, these solutions will not be available immediately,” West said.
With Portland’s emergency shelters at capacity, the clearing out of the Bayside encampment raises questions about where those homeless people will go to seek shelter.
In at least one instance this year, a homeless person has sought shelter in a Portland public school.
“On the morning of Feb. 13, before students were scheduled to arrive for the day, a Portland High School staff member found a homeless person asleep in one of the classrooms,” Portland Communications Coordinator Tess Nacelewicz told the Maine Wire in an email. “The staff member alerted school officials, who called Portland police. Police arrived promptly and removed the person from the building.”
It’s unclear whether Talbot Ross’s bill would include such cases, or whether individuals in these cases may still be charged with unlawful entry.
Speaker Talbot Ross did not immediately respond for comment on whether or not her proposed legislation would put Portland residents at risk from homeless people criminally trespassing on their property to seek shelter.