Tristan, a homeless man who has been staying at Portland City Hall Plaza, checks his belongings after packing up his tent Thursday. Organizers say they are winding down the protest encampment after more than two weeks. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Organizers are winding down the protest encampment of homeless people and volunteers that transformed the plaza in front of Portland City Hall into a tent city for the last 16 days and nights, but it’s still unclear how long some people might try to stay or where they are supposed to go when they leave.

What began as a handful of demonstrators pitching tents at City Hall and demanding improved services for the city’s most vulnerable residents quickly morphed into a miniature community of volunteers who marshaled donated food, clothing and tents for people in need.

Jess Falero, 23, who was among a small group responsible for starting the demonstration on July 22, began advising homeless campers Thursday to transition to other places. But Falero did not know what that next step should be for the dozens who pitched tents there, and the city has not set a hard deadline for people to clear out.

“I don’t have a clear answer for you on that,” Falero said Thursday. “We’re putting a sort of pause on this so we can move forward intentionally. It’s a sad day.”

A homeless man carries his tent across Congress Street after leaving City Hall Plaza on Thursday. Some of the volunteer services at the encampment have closed down and some of the residents have decided to leave. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Although Falero emerged as a leader of the encampment, the group’s initial goal of a leaderless movement hampered its ability to make decisions, Falero said. It also made it impossible for the people they were serving to hold them accountable. Falero said there was also a troubling dynamic between housed and unhoused volunteers that caused internal problems, but Falero declined to discuss the issues in detail.

City Manager Jon Jennings memorialized the end of the demonstration in a letter to Falero dated Thursday.

“I understand from your conversation with (Fire Chief) Keith Gautreau today that you are ending your protest and dismantling the encampment,” Jennings wrote. “The city supports you in these efforts and is willing to assist, as appropriate. I also want you to know that the city is hopeful that we can continue our recent collaboration to help unhoused individuals in Portland access the housing and services they need.”

Jennings also wrote that in the future, protests of the same size and duration must have prior city approval. It did not include any suggestion for where people should go or indicate what would happen if people did not leave.

“Any overnight protest, a protest lasting more than three days, or a protest attracting more than 2,000 individuals will require a permit from the City Council,” Jennings wrote.

Mayor Kate Snyder, who has stayed in touch with Falero since they met for a listening session in Lincoln Park, said the city staff plan to continue outreach to people who remain on the plaza to try to find them shelter. Snyder said she hopes to continue working with Falero to address homelessness.

“Taking the longer view on some of these issues to address the needs of the homeless community is something I want to work with Jess on,” Snyder said. “But none of these things are immediate. It’s not an overnight thing, ‘Here’s a demand, here’s the response.'”

The demonstration has lasted for more than two weeks, drawing dozens of homeless people who were struggling to find basic necessities after the coronavirus outbreak forced the closure of Preble Street’s day shelter, where anyone could use a clean bathroom, take a shower and do laundry. The day shelter was also a focal point for people to connect with counselors, work with the staff to find more permanent shelter, pick up mail or charge a phone.

City staff have worked to adapt to the physical distancing protocols of the pandemic. Portland is running three shelters and paying for 250 people to stay in hotel or motel rooms. But Falero said some necessities, for some people, are still not available.

In July, many people experiencing homelessness began congregating in the shade of Deering Oaks park, or nearby on a strip of grass and trees between Forest Avenue and High Street in front of the post office, drawing complaints from passers-by.

Many tents remained on Thursday at City Hall Plaza, where homeless people and protesters have been staying for the last two weeks. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

On Thursday, Falero began taking responsibility and apologizing for aspects of the camp’s failures, acknowledging that some people were unintentionally harmed when expectations were raised, and that some snap decisions did not help the encampment over time. Falero declined to discuss the specifics, saying the leadership group was still working things out.

“It’s not easy bringing everybody to the table,” Falero said. “Democracy is not easy.”

Falero said the group plans to stop offering daily meals at City Hall within the next day or two. A medical tent also will be dismantled and the services it provides will be transformed into a mobile unit – although details about how that might occur are in the works, Falero said.

On Thursday, tents and tarps still mostly covered the plaza and the stone ledges leading to the City Hall steps, but there were fewer people around, and many were cleaning up and filling trash bags with half-eaten food, empty containers, discarded clothing and personal items. Mangled canopies sat crumpled on the curb, battered by the winds of tropical storm Isaias, which blew through Portland on Tuesday night.

One camper, Scott Smith, 45, said he felt betrayed by the organizers, who admitted to him Thursday that they had lost control.

“The theory was decent, but they needed some sort of rules here,” said Smith, who has been homeless off and on for 20 years. “The people who started this got people to believe in this, and now you have 60, 70 people looking to find out what’s going to happen. I think they abandoned this whole place.”

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