Portland city officials provided updates regarding the homeless encampment below the Casco Bay Bridge during a Tuesday evening Health and Human Services and Public Safety Committee meeting.
The Casco Bay Bridge encampment, located in Harbor View Park below the bridge, has grown to become the city’s largest encampment following the city’s sweep of the Marginal Way Park and Ride encampment on Nov. 1.
According to Portland Parks, Recreation and Facilities Management Director Ethan Hipple, the Harbor View encampment has a total of 120 tents — more than half of the 214 tents citywide.
“This time last year, we had 37 tents citywide — so again, today we have 214, so the problem and the challenge before us has definitely grown many times,” Hipple said.
The total number of homeless individuals living in the Harbor View encampment is likely significantly higher, Hipple explained, as many tents have multiple people living in them.
The city has begun to informally treat the Harbor View encampment as their next emphasis area, though a resolution date — a deadline after which the encampment will be cleared out — has not yet been set.
Portland Director of Health and Human Services Kristen Dow said that since Nov. 2, 23 available beds at the city’s Homeless Services Center (HSC) have been offered to individuals in the Harbor View camp — 7 beds have been accepted.
Dow said the 30 percent success rate in bed acceptance is “much better than we have seen in the past, for sure,” and that almost every day someone comes into the HSC from Harbor View.
Two porta-potties have been placed in the Harbor View encampment, both of which are cleaned twice daily by Parks staff.
A challenge in providing the portable toilets within the city’s encampments has been that the city’s contract with a porta-potty pumping service is expired, and they have been unable to find another service provider.
“We put out to bid porta-potty pumping six months ago, and we got no bids,” Hipple said. “And so we’re running on an extension here with our existing provider.”
“Basically none of the providers want to do the work because of the challenging conditions,” he continued. “Some of the drivers have had some negative interactions and harassment.”
A dumpster and large sharps containers for used hypodermic needles were also placed in the Harbor View encampment last week.
“There were a lot of rats at that site [Harbor View], I would see rats every time I’d go there — so definitely not good living conditions for anybody staying there or the neighborhood,” Hipple said.
One major point of concern during the Tuesday committee meeting for Hipple and Portland Fire Chief Keith Gautreau was the homeless individual’s use of portable propane heaters.
Gautreau says that the Fire Department recently put out a fire that burned three tents to the ground in the East End.
“It was three tents that were burned up, and when we arrived we had propane tanks exploding,” Gautreau said.
An hour after putting that fire out, Gautreau continued, they were called to Harbor View park to put out a fire burning underneath the Casco Bay Bridge.
“The smoke was enveloping the bridge so much that people were driving into smoke,” he said.
“It’s cold out, they’re doing what they have to do, but it’s just increasing the safety risk right now,” he added.
Portland Police Chief Mark Dubois said Tuesday that the police response to the Harbor View encampment has been “very consistent with the other encampments.”
“There’s a lot of quality of life issues and complaints that we receive from the residents and businesses, a lot of criminal trespass,” Dubois said.
Dubois said there are two officers assigned to the encampment and its surrounding area from noon to midnight daily.
“They’re fairly busy — we do field a lot of complaints in the surrounding area for a variety of reasons,” he said. “A lot of people entering businesses that don’t really want them in there, they’re disturbing the customers and whatnot, using the facilities, or just hanging around.”