The Portland City Council voted against an order to legalize homeless camps in public parks through the winter months after hours of public comment pushed the Monday evening Council meeting into the early hours of Tuesday morning.
The order in question would have amended the city’s ordinances to permit loitering and camping for Portland’s homeless population in public parks and other areas, with few exceptions.
The proposed ordinance changes were estimated by the city to cost over $1.2 million in unappropriated funds across several departments.
City officials including Police Chief Mark Dubois, Fire Chief Keith Gautreau, and the heads of Parks, Recreation and Facilities wrote memos in opposition to the proposed order, citing numerous public health and safety concerns posed by the homeless encampments.
Chief Dubois presented data on the number of calls for service and crimes committed at the city’s various encampments since their formation.
He began with an encampment that was previously present at Portland City Hall — over a three-week period, there were over 80 calls for service, according to Dubois.
There was an aggravated assault where someone was hit in the head with a hammer, and somebody shot at with six rounds outside City Hall.
The two-month long Deering Oaks Park encampment resulted in 410 calls for service, 22 overdoses, with two of those being fatal, Dubois said, adding that one overdose by someone driving a vehicle resulted in a bystander being struck and killed.
The Fore River Parkway encampment, which was cleared in September after eight months, had 13 overdoses and a homicide committed at the encampment.
The four-month-long Bayside Trail encampment resulted in 788 calls for service, 25 overdoses, with three being fatal, and an “extremely significant” stabbing in which “a male’s stomach was cut open,” the police chief said.
Over a six-month period at the Marginal Way Park and Ride encampment, there were 467 calls for service, 36 overdoses, three overdose deaths, and two stabbings, one of which was done with a machete.
Police also responded to a report of a man chasing someone around with a sledgehammer on the same day.
The Maine Wire has also previously reported about local business owners discovering machetes, loaded firearms, and other weapons on or about their properties.
At the most recent large encampment in Harbor View Park, there have been 188 calls for service, and this week a man’s scooter was stolen by a man with a machete, and Monday morning there was a robbery where a man’s two front teeth were knocked out.
“So, I guess my point is, is that it doesn’t really matter what encampment we’re talking about, we see a significant amount of crime that occurs down there — violent crime,” Dubois said.
“And this is not including all the secondary theft from residences and businesses, and all the quality of life issues that we respond to on a daily basis in any of those encampments,” he added.
Following Dubois’ presentation, Fire Chief Gautreau presented on the risk of fires at the city’s encampments.
“We’ve seen a significant increase in outside fire calls, just recently, just with the weather being colder — particularly at Eastern Promenade and Harbor View Park,” Gautreau said.
The fire chief said that the encampments have resulted in the burning of inappropriate and toxic materials, causing smoke to negatively impact bridges and roadways.
Highly combustible materials, propane tanks exposed to nearby flames, and possible carbon monoxide poisoning from heaters being used inside poorly ventilated tents were among the issues raised by Gautreau.
Public comment began on the order at around 8 p.m. Monday evening — three hours after the start of the Council meeting — and did not finish until after midnight.
The final vote on the order did not occur until after 1 a.m.
The majority of speakers during the public comment portion spoke in opposition to the order, with many who live near the Harbor View encampment saying they no longer feel safe in their neighborhood.
“I don’t want to live in Portland anymore, because I feel unsafe,” said Alison Hawkes, who lives a block away from the Harbor View encampment. “And I don’t think it’s fair at all to have people feel that way.”
Cumberland County District Attorney Jackie Sartoris was also present at the Monday evening meeting and offered public comment.
Sartoris spoke to the issue of women’s safety at the homeless encampments, describing how she had met with several women who had lived in the encampments, all of whom had been coerced into sex or offered money or goods in exchange for sexual services.
She said following this discovery, she looked into the police logs from interactions at the encampments.
“Most of the police officers at the encampments aren’t making arrests, I want to be super clear about that,” Sartoris said. “We were seeing on the logs report, after report, after report of encounters that never led to arrest, even when it was technically illegal conduct.”
“What I realized after doing this deeper dive, is that if we increase or maintain the encampments in their current status, we are placing people who cannot call the police and ask for help — because ‘snitches get stitches’ — we are placing them in increased risk of harm,” she said. “That’s not the work that I set out to do as district attorney.”
Supporters of the order argued that the encampment sweeps were dangerous and dehumanizing, and that allowing for smaller and more spread out encampments would mitigate the public health and safety risks posed by the larger encampments.
Elizabeth Capone-Newton, one of the final speakers of the evening and a former District 5 School Board candidate, berated Portland Mayor Kate Snyder and the City Council and appeared to accuse them of wanting the city’s homeless population to die.
“I think the hardest question that you all face as the elected officials who are in charge of upholding democracy, is how do we get rid of, disappear, kill, or otherwise get out of our problem, people, without explicitly ordering their death?” Capone -Newton said. “How do we do it?”
Capone-Newton went on to compare the sweeps of homeless encampments to colonialism, and criticized the Council for allowing certain businesses to get tax breaks and developers to build housing “only for wealthy and upper middle class people.”
After her allotted three-minute public comment was expired, Capone-Newton continued to yell at Mayor Snyder and the Council.
“I got kicked out of the City Hall encampment leadership because I said ‘what the f— are you doing’?” she screamed. “What are you doing letting people not have a place to take a poop, and not have a place for needles?”
“You don’t know what I do in this city,” she yelled, telling Snyder that she was “gonna take a tiny bit more time” in response to her public comment time being expired.
“You’re in violation of Council rules, this has gone way—” Snyder told Capone-Newton when she continued yelling.
“You’re in violation of every important thing about the Portland charter, Mayor Snyder, I’m glad you’re going,” she shouted before sitting down.
The order failed to pass by a vote of 6-3, with Councilors Roberto Rodriguez, Anna Trevorrow, and Victoria Pelletier in the minority supporting the order.
Directly following the vote, Capone-Newton climbed up onto the City Council dais and laid down, causing panic among Mayor Snyder and the City Council members.
Snyder called for the assistance from an officer to remove the overweight woman from the desk as someone in the crowd sang “Portland Town” by Schooner Fare.
Two Portland Police officers, including Chief Dubois, removed Capone-Newton from the dais, and a total of five officers were needed to carry her off the floor and out of the Council chambers.
Capone-Newton was charged with criminal trespass, refusing to submit to arrest, and obstructing government administration.
She was taken to Cumberland County Jail.
Solidarity!! pic.twitter.com/3jixwuA8pu— The Maine Wire (@TheMaineWire) November 21, 2023