The ACLU of Maine sent a letter last week warning Portland City Manager Danielle West and Maine Department of Transportation (Maine DOT) Commissioner Bruce A. Van Note that the city’s upcoming sweeps of three homeless encampments may be unconstitutional.
The City of Portland and the Maine DOT plan to sweep — clear out — three homeless encampments in the city Wednesday, Nov. 1, including Portland’s largest encampment located in the Marginal Way Park and Ride on state-owned property.
Portland’s Encampment Crisis Response Team (ECRT) has previously swept two other homeless encampments, one in early September by the Fore River Parkway, and another in the spring along the Bayside trail.
Prior to the city’s most recent sweep of the Fore River encampment, the ECRT’s efforts to house the approximately 100 homeless individuals living in the camp resulted in just 18 placements, and cost taxpayers $65,000.
The sweep of the Fore River encampment led to “Stop the Sweeps” protests by communist and socialist organizations against the ECRT’s encampment sweep procedure — protests that the Maine ACLU joined.
Speaking before the Portland City Council in September, ACLU of Maine legal fellow Heather Zimmerman called the city’s encampment sweeps “inherently racist,” and demanded that the city stop “criminalizing homelessness.”
Now, the Maine ACLU is warning city officials that their upcoming sweeps may violate homeless individuals’ constitutional rights.
“If the sweeps happen as planned, people will lose their only shelter and life-saving items, such as tents, sleeping bags, medicine, and legal and medical records,” ACLU of Maine legal fellow Zimmerman said in a Tuesday press release. “This forcible displacement will risk lives by directly jeopardizing the health and safety of the Portland residents targeted by this policy – and will likely violate their constitutional rights.”
“Instead of carrying out this dangerous plan, our state and local leaders should dig into the underlying causes of unsheltered homelessness to remove barriers to shelter for those who want it, as well as address the root causes of homelessness: a lack of access to affordable housing, jobs, health care, and education,” Zimmerman said.
According to the Maine ACLU letter, both the City of Portland and Maine DOT “risk incurring substantial legal liability for violating the constitutional rights of unhoused residents,” namely under the Fourth, Eighth, and Fourteenth Amendments of the U.S. Constitution.
The letter cites a Ninth Circuit of the U.S. Court of Appeals opinion from Martin v. City of Boise, that ruled the City of Boise, Idaho’s anti-camping ordinance could not be enforced if there were not enough homeless shelter beds available for their homeless population.
The Ninth Circuit ruled that “as long as there is no option of sleeping indoors, the government cannot criminalize indigent, homeless people for sleeping outdoors, on public property, on the false premise they had a choice in the matter.”
Portland City Officials have said that the city’s Homeless Services Center is at capacity every night, and that any available beds are being offered to the individuals living in the encampments prior to the sweep.
The ACLU of Maine did not receive a response from Portland City Manager West or the Maine DOT Commissioner.