The Communist Party for Socialism and Liberation (PSL), the Maine Democratic Socialists of America (MDSA), the Maine People’s Alliance (MPA), and other left-wing activists rallied outside Portland City Hall Friday to protest the city’s policy of clearing out its homeless encampments.
Event organizers are calling for the city to pass an ordinance stopping the sweeps of the encampments until more long-term housing solutions are available, and some speakers wanted the city to sanction a permanent homeless encampment.
Friday’s “Stop the Sweeps” protest came a week after city officials removed the Fore River Parkway homeless encampment after only being able to house 18 of the almost 100 homeless individuals living in tents at the encampment.
In May the city swept another of its largest encampments on the Bayside Bike Trail, which resulted in the homeless simply setting up their tents in other sites throughout the city.
Currently, there are a total of 239 tents in Portland citywide according to city data.
The largest of the city’s encampments is now at the Marginal Way Park and Ride, an encampment of almost 80 tents on State of Maine Property that has nearly doubled since the sweep of the Fore River encampment.
Portland spokesperson Jessica Grondin said that the city was aware of Friday’s protest, and that they “do not arbitrarily sweep encampments.”
“We follow our administrative policies and as of late, the [Encampment Crisis Response Team] comprehensive model to resolve encampments,” Grondin said in a statement Friday.
The decision to sweep the Fore River encampment was met with backlash from local activist groups and nonprofits, as well as Portland City Councilors Victoria Pelletier, April Fournier, and Anna Trevorrow, who called for the clean up to be postponed.
“I don’t think it’s the right solution, especially when we don’t have available beds to offer people,” Trevorrow, who was at the protest Friday, told the Portland Press Herald.
The event was sponsored by several local and state nonprofit organizations, including Maine People’s Alliance, Preble Street, Maine Youth for Climate Justice, Maine Trans Net, and the Maine Democratic Socialists of America.
The protest was attended by more than 100 people, and was co-organized and emceed by Jess Falero, who works with the Church of Safe Injection, a Lewiston-based overdose prevention and harm reduction nonprofit organization that advocates for “safe use sites.”
Before Falero announced the protest’s program of speakers and performances, a speaker took the microphone and went on an expletive-ridden rant denouncing the city officials, “yuppies from out-of-state,” and the “petite bourgeois.”
“The least this city can do is allow the homeless to gather in a convenient, designated spot where those who give them resources and medical care can find them easily,” the speaker said. “Where they can form some semblance of community and stability.”
“But no, they sweep them again, and again, and again, with very little advanced warning, denying them any autonomy or dignity, and treating them and their meager possessions like nothing but garbage,” the speaker continued.
The speaker told attendees that if they “don’t like needles in the streets,” we should treat addiction “as an illness not a crime.”
“Establish places where addicts can use discretely and safely, and invest in recovery programs,” the speaker listed as one of their solutions.
“But these things aren’t lucrative,” the speaker explained. “They have the money, they have the resources. But the wealth hoarders would simply much rather see the homeless population go off and die somewhere and be replaced by yuppies from out-of-state.”
The speaker, who described themselves as a sexual minority, said that the city has a “thin veneer of tolerance” for racial tolerance, and that housing immigrants in hotels and then leaving them on the street was meant to give a “soulless impression of humanitarianism.”
Yelling into the microphone, the speaker called Portland’s local population “nothing more than drones” who work in restaurants, shops and hotels, and are “not paid the full value of their demeaning labor.”
“Those that reach the bottom will be swept out-of-sight and out-of-mind every time their encampments become an eyesore to the petite bourgeois,” the speaker said.
Another speaker, Don Kimball, a formerly homeless veteran and member of the anti-war organization Veterans for Peace, blasted Gov. Janet Mills for her statements on the state’s homeless population.
“It can happen to anybody, we need to stop the othering,” Kimball said. “These people are our friends, our neighbors, our relatives. And the city and the state have to stop dividing the local homeless population and the asylum seekers.”
“We’re all for the asylum seekers, welcome, we welcome them, just like everybody else is an immigrant to this county — except Native Americans,” he said.
“We have to stop the homeless whack-a-mole — where are people supposed to go when there’s nowhere to go?” he said.
“The governor of Massachusetts has declared an emergency because of the unhoused homeless population — Governor Mills, why have you not declared an emergency here in the State of Maine for the homeless?” he asked.
“For those of you who heard Governor Mills on TV the other night, she said the first thing to do with the homeless situation is to stop — is to get people back in housing,” he added. “While that is important, the number one thing to do is what? Keep people in their houses! Stop raising the rents!”
“She also said that we have to make homeless people productive members of society — how many people here know somebody that’s homeless, who works for a living? Hello!” Kimball said, adding that Gov. Mills “needs to get with the program.”
The majority of the signs at the protest were printed and sponsored by the Communist PSL, and displayed slogans saying “Stop the Sweeps,” “Fund people’s needs” and “Housing and healthcare now!”
Also in attendance Friday were members of MDSA, who distributed a flyer to attendees with a list of demands and a link to their petition calling on Portland city officials to end the encampment sweeps.
Among their demands is a $50 million housing bond, rent control, tenant unionization, reducing the number of Airbnbs in the city, expanding Portland’s property tax and rent relief programs to all ages, the imposition on a vacancy fee on certain properties, and implementing fees for hotel guests that would be directed to a housing trust.
MDSA also distributed a flyer informing the attendees that due to Gov. Janet Mill’s declaration of a State of Emergency over Hurricane Lee, the city’s Hazard Pay ordinance was in effect.
The city’s Hazard Pay law requires that all non-tipped, non-government workers be paid a minimum hourly rate of $21, and that tipped workers get $10.50 per hour plus tips during a State of Emergency — 1.5 times the regular minimum wage rage.
Businesses across from the city’s now-largest encampment at the Marginal Way Park and Ride have been terrorized by the presence of the open air drug market outside of their front doors.
Just last week a man wielding an axe was photographed walking through the Park and Ride.
In emails to city and state officials, business owners near the encampment have begged for action to be taken on the encampment for the safety of their employees and customers.
In response to the protest, Sanford Fogg, owner of Fogg Lighting, which sits across from the Marginal Way encampment, said that he hopes it “serves as a platform to clearly articulate the gravity of the situation and becomes a catalyst for a solution that respects the dignity of every individual while preserving the safety and wellbeing of our business community and its employees.”
“I recognize the effort being taken through the upcoming march to bring attention to the situation surrounding homeless encampments in our city,” Fogg said in an email statement to the Maine Wire. “It is indeed crucial that we not shy away from the hard conversations that need to happen in our community, as it stands affected by a range of issues stemming from the existence of these encampments.”
“Businesses and their hardworking employees in the vicinity have been facing a heightened level of challenges daily, including safety concerns and decreased foot traffic, which are inevitably impacting their livelihoods,” Fogg said.
“Furthermore, there have been reports of an increase in criminal activities, which add to the distress of the residents living nearby,” he added. “While it is vital to approach this topic with empathy and a readiness to find humanitarian solutions, it is equally essential to be candid about the undesirable ramifications these encampments have brought upon the neighboring areas.”
Jason Briggs, V.P. of Business Development at the nearby VIP Tour & Charter Bus Co., told the Maine Wire in a Saturday email that Portland must either side with the businesses, or let Marginal Way “become a wasteland for the severely troubled.”
“You can talk about the need to satisfy competing interests here til we’re blue in the face, but the bottom line is this: Portland faces a choice,” Briggs said. “Either protect the interests of long-standing, tax-paying businesses like ours or let Marginal Way become a wasteland for the severely troubled. You can’t do both.”
“We’ve had buses broken into, loaded weapons left on our property, our customers and employees made to feel unsafe, and – in the midst of all this – run a business that serves Maine’s tourism and hospitality industry,” Briggs said.
“How can we promote Maine from amongst squatter camps and pop up markets for illegal activity? Again, Portland faces a clear choice. Not everybody’s going to win here,” Briggs said.
At a City Council workshop on the encampments Thursday, Portland Mayor Kate Snyder discussed ways in which the city’s capacity codes and other ordinances could be relaxed in order to accommodate more people in the Homeless Services Center, which is at capacity every night.