In a Tuesday evening debate hosted by CBS 13, Fox 23 and the Bangor Daily News, Portland’s 2023 mayoral candidates each weighed in on how they would tackle the city’s homelessness crisis if elected.
Tuesday’s debate marked the first time that Portland voters got to hear from all five candidates who will appear on November’s ballot in a moderated debate format.
The candidates are Portland City Councilors Mark Dion, Pious Ali, and Andrew Zarro, former City Councilor Justin Costa, and political newcomer and software developer Dylan Pugh.
Moderator and WGME news anchor Gregg Lagerquist posed this question to the five candidates:
One of the city’s biggest, most visible problems right now is the homelessness crisis. Both the city and the state have recently dismantled some of the encampments that have been around in Portland. Often though, that just moves people from one encampment to another.
What does a solution look like here? Again, I want to dive into what you think can help fix this.
“The encampments have to cease”: City Councilor Mark Dion
Dion, former Cumberland County Sheriff, started his response with a clear message to Portland voters regarding the homelessness crisis: “It’s gotta end, that simple.”
Referencing the city’s Encampment Crisis Response Team (ECRT), which has been in charge of encampment outreach and attempting to place homeless individuals into available city shelter beds, Dion called it a “social worker approach.”
“There is a value to that [approach] if people want to accept the services,” Dion said. “I cannot tolerate the idea that we provide them with a menu of options and they come up with conditions.”
“If you want conditions, I want rules. I want the police involved. I want to curtail open and notorious criminal conduct. I want to recover stolen property,” he said. “I want the same level of normalcy in those camps that I would expect from anybody else that was camping in a public space.”
“I want to make our public spaces, our parks and our trails, safe again,” he added. “People don’t want to talk about it because they don’t think it’s politically correct — so I will advocate on their behalf.”
The former law enforcement officer said that he wants to leave Portland “safer in four years than we feel it is today.”
“The encampments have to cease. We have to get people into housing,” he said.
“If you’re drowning, it’s not time to argue about what color life preserver I’m gonna throw to you. Take it, and we can deal with those consequences after,” Dion concluded.
“We need to look at it through the lens of compassion”: City Councilor Pious Ali
“I think we need to look at it through the lens of compassion, using punitive [sic] will not work,” Ali began his response.
Ali explained that he categorizes Portland’s homeless population into three groups.
The first, Ali said, are individuals who are “facing a hard time” in their life who “need a little bit of help to put them into housing.”
The second group Ali described as “it doesn’t matter where you put them, their landlord will say ‘do this, don’t do this, don’t do this, do this,’ and they will violate all of that.”
“After three months, they will organize parties and they will be out on the street,” Ali said of the group.
The third group, according to Ali, are homeless individuals who “are having extensive mental health issues and substance use.”
“For that group , we need to figure out — partner with the state — to figure out how can we put a program, a very extensive, intensive program, that will support them in a housing environment where they get the support that they need,” he said.
Ali said that in previous work with the nonprofit organization Volunteers of America he has seen his approach work, and that “if we partner with many others it will work again, and soon our streets will be safe and people will get the help that they need.”
“What we’re doing right now is not a humane way to treat the homeless”: Justin Costa
Former City Councilor Justin Costa, who has also served on the Portland School Board, said that “we need to be clear as a city that we need to begin to wind down the encampments.”
“These [encampments] are fundamentally not safe, and we have to follow the facts where they lead us, as uncomfortable as that can be sometimes,” Costa said.
“What we’re doing right now is not a humane way to treat the homeless population,” he said. “We are putting an extremely vulnerable population in more danger than they need to be, and we’re not doing anything for the citizens that are near the encampments who are directly affected by it.”
Costa said that members of his own family have been “accosted walking through city parks.”
“We can’t accept that,” he said.
The Brunswick native said that although the ECRT’s approach is “compassionate,” it’s “built on a shaky foundation.”
Costa said that the city needs to rebuild partnerships with community nonprofits, and that one of the contributing factors to the city’s current crisis is that “the city was very late to respond to the initial encampment as it started to grow on the Bayside trail.”
“Inaction is not going to solve this problem”: City Councilor Andrew Zarro
City Councilor Andrew Zarro started his response by agreeing that “we do need to tackle our homelessness issue head on.”
“But what we’re looking at right now, and experiencing in real time, is decades of inaction playing out,” Zarro said.
According to Zarro, Portland is facing three overlapping crises: a housing crisis, a mental health crisis, and a substance abuse crisis.
“I want to be really careful not to paint with a broad brush stroke to say that there is a monolith of the type of unhoused person that exists,” Zarro said. “Yes, there is a lot of overlap, but I think we have an obligation to understand what folks are going through when they are our unhoused neighbors.”
The City Councilor said that there are three lanes of housing that can be used to address the crisis, those being emergency shelters — like the city’s at-capacity Homeless Services Center, transitional housing, and permanent housing.
“The data shows that emergency shelter will not solve this on its own,” he said. “I have a proposal to prioritize transitional housing coupled with housing first policies, to remove the remaining barriers that folks do have to getting housing.”
Some barriers that Zarro mentioned for the homeless individuals to go into emergency housing options included having a partner or a dog.
“I understand some of these issues might seem trivial to people who are housed, but these really are significant barriers,” he said.
Zarro is proposing that the city prioritize 100 units of transitional housing, adding that “we have money that can pay for it that’s not going to affect the tax dollars of Portlanders.”
“It’s going to move the needle — but inaction is not going to solve this problem. This is one of the biggest issues of our city and of our time,” he said.
“The solution to homelessness is housing”: Dylan Pugh
Dylan Pugh, a software developer who came to Maine by way of Washington State and New York City, said that on a “basic level, the solution to homelessness is housing.”
Pugh said he agrees with the housing first approach presented by Zarro.
“If you give somebody a house, a door that they can lock, a place where they can feel safe, everything is going to follow from that — and that’s the compassionate approach,” Pugh said.
“I don’t think it’s fair for us to assume that people don’t want to — that are refusing to go to the shelter are doing that out of ill will,” he continued. “Often times people don’t feel safe there, and we need to prioritize the safety of everyone in Portland, including our unhoused neighbors.”
The housing first solution, in Pugh’s view, is the right approach to address the homelessness crisis because “once people are in a housing first situation, then the wraparound services can come as well, so you can have people that get help with mental illness and substance abuse.”
“But without that stability,” he said, “nothing else is going to be nearly as effective.”
The 2023 Portland municipal elections will take place on Nov. 7, 2023, when voters will have the opportunity to elect a new mayor, three city councilors, and three school board members.
Watch the full CBS 13/Fox 23 Portland mayoral debate below: