Here's Something: Portland’s homelessness not a pretty picture

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The front-page photo in the May 6 Maine Sunday Telegram deserves an award.

Captured by staff photographer Ben McCanna, the image showed a woman picking up litter beside a homeless man sleeping on the sidewalk near the Preble Street Resource Center. The man had one arm extended on the sidewalk and one leg dangling off the curb into the roadway while the woman, a resident of the neighborhood, was bent over in the gutter tossing what looked like yellow crime-scene tape into a plastic bag.

McCanna’s striking photo – with caption “Bayside at rock bottom” above and headline “A neighborhood under siege” below – captured what the story by reporter Randy Billings detailed in-depth: Parts of Portland are being overrun by homeless people with too much time on their hands and not many good intentions in their hearts.

As the photo showed, neighbors are left to clean up after people who can’t be bothered with lifting a finger, let alone their bodies, to help themselves. And these same neighbors are left to clean up after the derelict Portland government, which evidently cares so little that it leaves a man lying in the street in the middle of the day.

With two shelters and a policy of leaving the homeless free to do whatever they want – to include ranting and raving at passersby in addition to the omnipresent begging in all sections of the city, not just Bayside – the city seems more than welcoming toward the homeless while taxpaying residents are left to defend themselves and their property.

I applaud the newspaper for exposing crime committed by homeless people in Portland. The editorial staff is brave for taking on this taboo and politically charged subject. I knew Portland’s homeless were taking over the city’s intersections begging for money, but before reading the story I had no idea Bayside neighbors were dealing with overt sex, open-air drug deals, drunken brawls and countless burglaries of their homes and businesses.

Don’t get me wrong, I feel bad for the homeless I see begging in intersections. I wonder, especially in the dead of winter, how these hardy panhandlers not only manage to stand the cold but also stand for hours on end defending their corner, pacing back and forth between cars and balancing on small traffic islands without getting run over. I don’t ever remember seeing as many homeless on the streets of Portland as I do now.

So, who do we blame for Portland’s homelessness problem?

First, I blame Portland’s tolerant culture that preaches an anything-goes, live-and-let-live mentality. Sometimes toleration and looking the other way is not a good thing.

Second, I blame Preble Street Resource Center. I understand someone being homeless for a month or two before they can get back on their feet, and I praise Preble Street for helping these folks. But many of Portland’s homeless are that way for years, and Preble Street enables it. Should we have shelters whose very presence traps people in limbo because, well, Preble Street is their de facto home?

And then there are societal factors beyond Portland’s or Preble Street’s control: Family breakdown, drugs, booze, medical-related bankruptcies (I thought Obamacare solved that?), mental illness, etc.

The solutions are not as easy, but I’ll take a stab.

First, as New Hampshire has done, we should ban giving money to beggars in traffic. Portland contemplated a panhandling ban, but banning giving would do the trick just as well.

Second, since they say Preble Street is a regional homeless magnet, we need to stop supplying the cure. The decades-old resource center has failed in its mission, since there are more homeless now than ever. Giving meals and a bed to transients and then casting them out into the streets may not be the best approach.

Third, Mayor Ethan Strimling should make like he’s former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani and crack down on bums as Giuliani did in the 1990s. Giuliani subscribed to the theory of law enforcement that calls for cracking down on minor scofflaws before they turn into major criminals. Strimling should, too.

Lastly, let’s get the mentally ill into institutions where they can be cared for properly and not left to die on the streets. What’s happening in Portland is not only awful for neighbors, but inhumane for the homeless.

Something drastic has to happen. Many people in Portland government are failing to deal with this situation because they don’t want to appear mean-spirited and uncaring to voters. But I care more about the homeless, many of whom are not criminals and don’t deserve to be discarded by society.

Portland’s government has ignored this problem for years and hopefully the work by McCanna and Billings – and the frightening front-page photo – opens their eyes.

John Balentine, a former managing editor for Sun Media Group, lives in Windham.