When Your Life Goes To The Landfill A Shame on Portland, Maine

A caravan of carts. Image by Don Kimball.

On May 16, with the promise of summer around the corner, but with nighttime temperatures still hovering around the freezing mark, the City of Portland, Maine moved out an encampment of approximately 150 unhoused occupants that had been sheltering in their 84 odd tents and makeshift shelters. After kicking the can down the road for weeks, the city council, urged on by city manager Danielle West who half-heartedly said she made the decision “with a heavy heart”, voted to remove those who had been living on public land. The city made the black hearted decision knowing the unhoused there had few, if any alternatives for places to go. The well-heeled had turned a blind eye to the plight of Portland’s poorest. So much for a city that US News and World Report said was the seventh best place to live in the whole country, but that may depend on one’s point of view. Are you viewing that from a condo, or a cardboard box?

The area that the homeless had gravitated to seeking some measure of community and safety was adjacent to the Bayside Trail, a popular area for bicyclists, runners and pedestrians and a welcome refuge from the hazards of increasing city traffic and road construction. Those very same qualities however, also made the three mile trail attractive for a large part of Portland’s homeless population. With it’s close proximity to the downtown area and public transportation, the Bayside Trail encampment made the miserable life of living on the street, just a little less mean. Straddling both sides of the trail, and within sight of Whole Foods Market and Trader Joes, this encampment was ultimately deemed unsafe to the neighborhoods and business like Trader Joes and Whole Foods Market which were both within sight of the modern day Bidenville.

Despite the city’s previous policy of not enforcing removal efforts when the shelters are at capacity (including a new 208 bed facility, and a sporting arena temporarily holding 300 asylum seekers) the city council voted to have the police and city workers move everything and everyone out. The city houses 1.200 people every night, but it’s only a band aid on an open sore. Compounding the crises in a state that has seen its homeless population triple since 2022, (thank you Covid) affordable rental units are almost non-existent, and with the tourist season looming, hotels are not accepting vouchers. The encampment that had been growing since the city moved the unhoused from nearby Deering Oaks Park last October in a seemingly never-ending game of homeless Wack-A-Mole was, in the wink of an eye, no more.

Joined by longtime homeless advocate, Veteran For Peace and US Naval Academy graduate William “Bill” Higgins, we both headed down to the trail on that Tuesday morning to witness the sorry scene that resembled something out of a zombie movie. The atmosphere amongst the homeless was subdued, the temperature cool and the skies overcast as folks tore down tents, and packed up what they could carry, knowing what they couldn’t take with them would be scooped up into dump trucks. What do you say to folks when there’s nowhere to go? Bill, the executive director of Homeless Advocacy For All, and a former homeless veteran himself, spoke to the TV cameras about the tragedy that is the ongoing homelessness crisis here in Portland, and across the country. Bill lamented the decision by the city to clear out everyone, and suggested perhaps the money spent on the removal could have better spent by providing showers, portable bathrooms and dumpsters instead, Saying it was “atrocious that the city had made the decision to remove everyone,” Higgins said the city needed to declare an emergency perhaps and call in FEMA. “If there were 4,000 plus homeless people in Maine from a natural disaster such as a flood, FEMA would house those people, why not these people?” We spoke with a soon-to-be-displaced homeless man named Aaron. Originally from Ohio, he had lost his apartment when he got four months behind in his rent. He’d been part of the encampment at Bayside for safety and companionship. “There’s no beds in the shelters and there’s really no where to go, ” he said. When asked if he had a voucher for a hotel he replied, “as far as I know they don’t want vouchers because they (the hotels) can get top dollar for their rooms right now.”

It isn’t just the City of Portland that has carried out punitive measures on the unhoused, the State of Maine has joined in the bureaucratic bullying too by recently moving out people living by the I-295 freeway. Last October, I personally witnessed one of these unnecessary clear-outs, and on May 26, claiming that, ” the encampments posed an immediate risk to the safety of the unhoused people and to the traveling public,” and backed up by the State Police, Maine DOT workers were back moving out around 10 homeless citizens. With the same vengeance as the city, DOT scooped up the tents and tarps and carted off what little people had left after having just been moved from the Bayside Trail. Chad McDougal, with the Restorations Homes Recovery Program was there to help the homeless and told WGME-TV that, “there are not many places for them to stay, and that’s why we’re out here,” According to a DOT spokesman, there were also two or three other campsites that they dismantled.

Imagine the trauma of being on the streets, where you don’t know where your next meal is coming from, then envision somebody taking what little you have left. Now imagine there’s nowhere to go. How did America get here? We live live in the richest country in the world, which spends .54 cents out of every discretionary dollar on defense. According to the Peter G. Peterson Foundation, the US outspends on national defense the next 10 closest countries combined with a budget of $877 billion dollars. With 2.5 million children (one in every 30) homeless, according to the National Center on Family Homelessness, and a Point In Time survey from 2022 showing there were 13,564 unsheltered veterans, America has lost it’s moral compass. Perhaps we should heed the words of the 19th century.

Oglala Lakota Sioux prophet Black Elk, who once said, “for nothing can live well except to the way the sacred Power of World lives and moves.” In other words perhaps, we need bread, not bombs.