As we round the bend into the fall and look toward the winter, our state finds itself still gripped by a homelessness crisis deeper and more widespread than ever before.

A homeless man who asked to not be identified carries a mattress away from an encampment at the Fore River Parkway Trail on Wednesday morning as Portland police and city employees clear the area. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Even with unprecedented and reasonably well-supported efforts, the complexity of the problem means that it has to be slowly untangled.

We already know that what’s too often seen as a Portland problem – dramatic and pronounced as it has been throughout our largest city – is not restricted to Portland. In Lewiston, in Bangor, in Auburn, in Waterville, in Augusta and elsewhere, people without places where they can afford to live or places that are appropriate for them to go have settled in clusters of tents.

What’s been happening lately, in Portland as in other cities, is that those homeless encampments are being “swept.” Public opinion has been divided on this strategy. Many Portland residents, concerned about safety and sanitation, have called for a low-tolerance approach to camping on public grounds and a strict interpretation of the relevant city ordinances.

At the same time, three Portland city councilors gave voice to those opposed to the breaking down of encampments last week, asking the city to postpone its planned sweep of a large encampment on the Fore River Parkway Trail, suggesting that such an action only be carried out as “a last resort.”

Writing in these pages back in June, Mark Swann and Donna Yellen of the nonprofit agency Preble Street, who have worked with the homeless community for 30 years, called for an approach that “prioritizes people’s lives.”


In Portland, where the crisis is at its most acute, the city’s Encampment Crisis Response Team has made an effort to do that, adopting a people- and housing-focused approach with many prongs and a clear and stated emphasis on person-by-person access to shelter. We’ve seen in recent times that this is sound in theory and very complicated in practice.

Fortunately, Gov. Mills’ final 2023 budget took the unprecedented challenge of the housing crisis seriously and set aside tens of millions for investment in housing first, the model championed by Preble Street and other organizations, and topping up funding for emergency housing relief (shelters and other transitional housing) statewide.

Resourcing the response, however, is only half the battle.

City officials are getting to grips with what “outreach” really means, how difficult it is to get right and how much emotion is involved. With the help of community partners and outreach workers with experience in the field, the city has gradually been refining its process of communicating with and catering to the people living in encampments, offering as much information as possible, listening to and attempting to assuage their concerns and pursuing the ultimate goal of encouraging uptake of available resources and increasing participation in its shelter system. Taking that step, all going well, can allow people to get back on their feet.

The barriers to that participation are myriad; sometimes specific – based on geography, health concerns, relationships, or the major challenges posed by substance use – and sometimes general. A 53-year-old woman recently interviewed by this newspaper, who declined to give her name because she didn’t want her son to know she was homeless, said that she simply felt too fearful to join large groups of unknown people in an enclosed shelter space. Unsure of what to do once her encampment in Portland was cleared, she said, “I can’t think that far ahead,” she said. “It’s just one day at a time.”

For people in her position, there is no choice but to take it one day at a time. For the officials that are responding to this crisis, or may have to respond to it next year or the year after, the outlook must be very far out. Already, we know that’s a daunting prospect. We know that even the suggestion of additional investment in solutions to the chronic problem of homelessness in our towns and cities is too much for large parts of the electorate.

But even those unwilling, fed-up and skeptical constituents must know the truth: To fail to adequately address record levels of homelessness now will plunge Maine into a scenario that will require an even more muscular response again – that is, if it’s still within reach of a response. The scale and extent of Portland’s problem may well look exceptional to those outside the city. The fact of the matter is that Portland’s experience can take root anywhere in Maine.

Efforts to reduce the number of people sleeping outside in Maine have improved since the start of the year. Gaining a clear understanding of the stubborn reality of homelessness and continuing to adapt to that reality is a critical part of the process. So let’s keep going.

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