Business complaints prompt Brunswick discussion about homelessness

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BRUNSWICK — More than 70 people attended a forum Wednesday to discuss a reported increase in complaints about the homeless population downtown.

Deborah King, executive director of the Brunswick Downtown Association, which organized the discussion, said she has received at least half a dozen complaints that homeless people are interfering with the downtown businesses and, in some cases, causing them to lose costumers.

The meeting was held at The Gathering Place, a daytime shelter on Tenney Way. 

Last summer, King said she received no such reports. Police Patrol Cmdr. Tom Garrepy said the increase mirrors a surge in police calls relatied to homelessness, although he couldn’t quantify the increase.

Most of the meeting, however, was spent discussing available community resources that serve the homeless population.

That format was partly by design, said King, who explained that the forum was arranged to avoid a “knee-jerk” reaction to the complaints, and to instead explore a community-based solution.

“We don’t want to wait until something gets so out of hand that we throw our hands up in the air and we’re grasping at straws for solutions,” she said in an interview prior to the meeting. 

To her knowledge, King said, none of the incidents that resulted in complaints have escalated to the level of disruption reported in Portland, which recently addressed a similar problem following a homeless man’s outburst in a downtown deli.

Most of the calls in Brunswick have been about loitering groups of apparently homeless people who either harass passersby or simply intimidate costumers with their presence, King said. Once, she noted, a customer called a business to tell the owner they decided against shopping there after feeling threatened by people gathered outside.

“Most of the people who come here are Brunswick people,” Chick Carrol, a panelist and co-founder of the Gathering Place, said.

He and most of the panelists provided a compassionate profile of homelessness that avoided negative characterizations of individuals and instead concentrated on the systemic causes of poverty.

In addition to Carroll and Garrepy, representatives from Tedford Housing, Sweetser, Catholic Charities, the Midcoast Hunger Prevention Program, and two town councilors were on the panel.

It is unclear if any further action will take place following Wednesday’s forum, which mainly allowed the audience to ask questions.

The panel followed a meeting the BDA held with some of those organizations, the police, and business owners; if any of those business owners who originally raised the issue to the BDA were present Wednesday, they did not make themselves known.

Few people asked the panel how to respond to specific situations; rather, most attendees wanted to know more about homelessness in the Brunswick area.

Tedford’s Craig Phillips said the nonprofit is looking to double its shelter beds in the next few years because it is unable to keep up with the area’s need. MCHPP’s Karen Parker noted that Maine has the nation’s seventh-highest rate of food insecurity: 16.4 percent, nearly 4 percent over the national average.

One man’s specific question about how to respond to homeless people seeking shelter inside public buildings prompted Garrepy to wonder what more the police could do.

He said he would like the Police Department to take a more proactive role in those kinds of situations because right now their primary contact with the homeless population is after an emergency call has been placed.

“We want to be a resource,” Garrepy said.

Callie Ferguson can be reached at 781-3661, ext. 100, or [email protected]. Follow Callie on Twitter: @calliecferguson.

Debora King, executive director of the Brunswick Downtown Association, addresses an Oct. 11 forum at the Gathering Place, a daytime homeless shelter. The forum attended by about 70 people followed complaints from businesses about problems with homeless people.

Reporting on municipal, school, and community news in Brunswick and Harpswell. Bowdoin graduate, Wild Oats sandwich-eater. Callie can be reached at 207-781-3661 ext. 100, or [email protected]