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Months after clearing a camp, Portland stills has hundreds of homeless tents

Jun 02, 2024

PORTLAND, Maine — Maine State Trooper Connor Willard handed out garbage bags to homeless campers in the park-and-ride lot on Marginal Way on Wednesday morning, telling them they’d have to squeeze 50-or-so tents into the eastern end of the lot by Thursday.

That’s when the Maine Department of Transportation plans on temporarily dividing the lot in half: one for cars and one for campers.

The 50-yard move to the other end of the lot is the latest reshuffling of Portland’s homeless population which began in May when officials cleared a large encampment from the Bayside Trail. With another clearance impending at a Frederick Street tent village, campers, nearby business owners and homeless advocates say the Bayside clearance did little to address the city’s homelessness conundrum and simply scattered people to other peninsula camps.

An informal count on Wednesday morning revealed at least 205 tents set up, in various groups, near the city’s downtown.

The Marginal Way lot had almost 50 tents and another nearby enclave, on the edge of Deering Oaks Park, sported 30, or so. At least 24 tents clustered around a public path near the Portland end of the Casco Bay Bridge. Another dozen lined a grassy strip at the end of the Western Prom. Upwards of 100 tents and shanty-style dwellings lined the public path at the end of Frederick Street.

Marginal Way camper Bruce Cavallaro got one of Willard’s clear plastic garbage bags on Wednesday, even though he’s currently set up on the DOT’s camping-approved end of the lot.

“Was that just a photo op?” Cavallaro said after the trooper moved on to the next patch of tents.

Cavallaro indicated he’d been living on the grass perimeter of the parking lot since being moved off the nearby Bayside Trail on May 16. He’d been camping there since the previous autumn.

“All that did was spread people out and now I don’t know where the people from the other end of the parking lot are going to go,” Cavallaro said. “There’s already a lot of tents set up down here.”

After making the move across Marginal Way, from the trail to the lot, Cavallaro said he’d gotten onto a waiting list for housing but wasn’t hopeful he’d get sheltered before the end of summer.

While Willard moved between tents, a business owner from across Marginal Way approached him asking why everyone was being moved to the end of the lot directly across from his shop.

“I don’t have an answer for you. That’s above my paygrade,” Willard said.

A DOT spokesperson did not answer specific questions about the move on Wednesday, referring only to a news release which said the agency would be “temporarily dividing the Marginal Way park-and-ride facility into two areas to accommodate the competing uses.”

“MaineDOT, in coordination with Maine State Police, will continue to monitor and clear the state-owned land along I-295 in order to preserve public safety,” it read.

The parking lot is adjacent to Interstate 295 and it’s unclear whether campers there would eventually be told to leave.

The businessman, who spoke on condition of anonymity out of fear of retaliation, said having the tent village in front of his store, rather than behind it, on the Bayside Trail, was no improvement. He cited human waste, spent needles and multiple ambulance calls per week as impacting his bottom line and making his employees feel unsafe.

“If this was happening in people’s nice, cozy neighborhoods in the suburbs, they wouldn’t be happy about it,” he said.

Dana Stailing of the Milestone Recovery Center’s H.O.M.E. Team said she’d seen no reduction in service calls since the Bayside Trail encampment was scattered.

“It’s the same — it’s just made it harder for us to find people,” Stailing said.

The H.O.M.E. Team provides situation de-escalation and transportation for homeless individuals experiencing acute mental health or substance use disorder issues. The team responds to 10 to 20 calls per day, which come from private citizens as well as the police dispatcher.

Calls to Portland Mayor Kate Snyder and Health and Human Services Department Director Kristen Dow were not returned Wednesday afternoon.

Stailing spoke on the phone while responding to a call at the massive tent encampment off Frederick Street, which city officials have targeted for clearance by Sept. 6.

“That’s going to be extremely harmful,” Sailing said.

Troy R. Bennett is a Buxton native and longtime Portland resident whose photojournalism has appeared in media outlets all over the world. More by Troy R. Bennett