The City of Portland announced Friday that they will be clearing out the large homeless encampment under the Casco Bay Bridge in Harbor View park starting on Tuesday, Dec. 19, citing concerns over health and safety risks posed by the encampment.
The city states that outreach workers have successfully brought 43 people from the Harbor View park encampment, as well as 111 people sleeping outside in total, into the Homeless Services Center (HSC).
The recent opening of a 180-bed shelter for single asylum-seeking migrants in Portland’s Riverton neighborhood, as well as the City Council approving a 50-bed expansion to the HSC’s capacity, has allowed approximately 100 shelter beds at the HSC to be available to the homeless individuals living in the city’s encampments.
In their Friday announcement, the city states they “remain extremely concerned with the health and safety risks” associated with the encampments.
“With temperatures continuing to drop and winter weather expected soon, health and safety risks will continue to increase,” the city wrote. “Tent fires, a fatality due to a tent fire, and an unattended outside death have also recently occurred in Portland.”
In late November, Portland Police found a deceased individual inside of a burning tent at a campsite along I-295 — that same weekend, the Sanford Fire Department found the remains of a man inside of a makeshift tent that had been destroyed by a fire.
In total, there have been 12 deaths in Portland’s encampments in 2023.
The city says calls for service in the Harbor View park area have significantly increased, with 303 calls in 2023, and seven overdoses — one fatal.
In 2022, there were 59 calls for service to the area and no overdoses.
“Every effort has and will continue to be made by City staff and community partners to provide indoor shelter to the unhoused in our community,” said newly inaugurated Portland Mayor Mark Dion.
“We must, however, take affirmative steps to address the adverse public health and safety consequences presented by these encampments to unhoused individuals as well as upon neighbors and businesses who also experience demonstrable harm if these camps are left unchecked,” Dion said.
In addition to their planned resolution of the Harbor View encampment next Tuesday, the city announced they will also resume “normal enforcement of all relevant ordinances at other City-owned properties as long as shelter beds continue to be available.”
City Manager Danielle West said that the Encampment Crisis Response Team (ECRT), the coalition of city staff and local nonprofit organizations tasked with encampment outreach, was initially successful in moving homeless individuals from encampments into the HSC.
“We saw quick results at the beginning, which was promising, but things have plateaued,” West said. “Given this fact, the increasing health and safety risks at encampments, winter weather, and the desire to avoid any additional fatalities, we made the decision in accordance with City ordinances to resolve the Harbor View and other city-wide encampments.”
City staff surveyed recent intakes at the HSC in order to identify what prevents chronically homeless individuals from seeking shelter.
According to their survey, “loss of autonomy” was cited at the top reason for declining a bed at the HSC by those staying at the Harbor View encampment.
In response to those concerns, and to encourage individuals to access the available shelter beds, the city has extended the HSC curfew to 11:00 p.m.
Though the Harbor View encampment is the largest of the city’s encampments, there are many other smaller campsites around the city.
One such encampment, a site near the corner of Douglas St. and Congress St., contained about 20 tents as of Friday morning.
Portland spokesperson Jessica Grondin told the Maine Wire that the city plans to resolve other encampments throughout the city in addition to Harbor View — including the one on Douglas St. — at some point next week.