Life on the street: Changes promised as Portland prepares for summer

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PORTLAND — As the weather warms, Michaela McVetty fears another summer of discontent on city streets.

“I am genuinely scared … I have been operating in Portland for several years, and it has been getting significantly worse each year,” McVetty said in an April 21 email.

McVetty, the owner of Sisters Gourmet Deli in Monument Square, has endured disruptions and threats directed against her staff and customers. Last summer, the video of one outburst went viral and prompted a City Council forum about safety and the health and welfare of city residents, visitors and business owners.

Last year, Kenny Wayne Beek could have been among those creating anxiety for McVetty.

In 2017, Cumberland County Jail intake logs show Beek was brought in seven times by city police for offenses he said occurred when he was drinking. Charges included public drinking, criminal trespass and assault.

“One time they took my bottle, so I grabbed it back,” he said.

On April 18, Beek sat on a bench outside the Casco Bay Ferry Terminal garage, talking about sobriety and his attempts to find a stable home with his housing voucher. Two days before, he had huddled under cover outside the terminal for most of the day while torrential rains and wind swept through the city.

“I’m not drinking anymore, so I have not been arrested lately,” he said. He has not been jailed since December.

His housing voucher took a year to get, and a detox bed took several months, he said.

Beek’s behavior over the last year was also bad enough to get him banned from the Milestone Foundation shelter on India Street for a year, he said. Home was outdoors, or maybe a friend’s floor.

“But you can’t stay on someone’s floor forever,” he said.

New efforts

Some changes are coming as the city grapples with helping its most vulnerable population and ensuring public safety.

The Oxford Street Shelter is now open all day, every day, which is expected to cost the city an additional $542,000 in its upcoming budget while giving its guests a safe alternative to days on the streets.

The shelter is also expanding to add restrooms and storage areas outside for guests, Director Rob Parritt said April 20.

“When we went to 24 hours, I was clear we were not looking to be the be-all-end-all,” Parritt said. “We are here to supplement the already great work they are doing at Preble Street.”

Hours after Beek spoke of his life on city streets, Portland Downtown Executive Director Casey Gilbert detailed for city councilors how a new collaboration with Amistad, a social service nonprofit, will help business owners, customers and staff while getting help for others in distress or hard times.

Councilors then voted to reduce the block grant funding for the collaboration by $5,000, a vote that reflected the paucity of Community Development Block Grant funding from the U.S. Department of Housing & Urban Development in the face of many needs.

“It is a complex, Rubik’s cube-type issue,” Gilbert said April 20. “We are not going to be the ones who solve it, but we can be part of the solution.”

Portland Downtown is a nonprofit encompassing the Arts District along Congress Street and the Old Port. District property owners are assessed additional taxes, and the organization spends $25,000 to fund four police cadets each year. It’s “Shop for a Cause” days have raised money for Amistad, Preble Street and the Milestone Foundation’s Homeless Outreach and Mobile Engagement, or HOME Team.

The cadets walk beats, visiting businesses and enforcing ordinances, but are not armed and cannot make arrests.

“They are on the front lines of seeing homelessness and the substance use disorder problems,” Gilbert said.

The $45,000 in CDBG funding for the new peer advocacy program will allow Amistad staff to respond to specific calls and take a proactive approach when directing people to resources.

Portland Downtown staff will also compile data on the calls and contacts made in the outreach.

The $5,000 cut by councilors came after City Manager Jon Jennings had trimmed the original $80,000 request to $50,000. The final $5,000 removed was bundled with reductions from three other CDBG grants so the city could provide some additional funding to the Preble Street Resource Center.

The new collaboration is only part of the moral imperative Gilbert said her organization and other business improvement districts are recognizing throughout the world, especially as studies show the longer people are on the streets, the more likely they are to die there.

On Tuesday, May 1, and again on May 22, Portland Downtown will host 90-minute “Cultivating Compassion” training workshops with Preble Street and Homeless Voices for Justice for its member businesses to “explore the causes and impacts of homelessness,” according to registration information.

The sliding fee scale of $10 to $30 covers both workshops.

Community policing

In the meantime, outeach through city community policing continues, but efforts to increase staffing have stalled. The current budget funds two additional community policing officers and a sergeant to supervise the program. The fiscal year 2019 budget eliminates the unfilled positions.

“Community policing is a cornerstone of what we do day-to-day and it hasn’t changed,” Police Chief Michael Sauschuck said Monday.

The community police stations are staffed by officers and coordinators, Sauschuck added, and the department has increased patrols in Bayside. He also applauded the new collaboration between Portland Downtown and Amistad and existing work by the HOME Team because properly addressing homelessness and mental health and substance use issues goes beyond law enforcement.

Peer advocacy and outreach can save the city money by eliminating calls to police and medical units. Situations can be de-escalated and people in distress can be tended to – even if it just means a sandwich, clean socks or a ride somewhere.

The collaboration will resemble HOME Team efforts, but McVetty noted those are spread thin even if effective.

“I am constantly directed to the HOME team, which operates under limited hours with no ability to remove a person from a situation unless the person is willing. This typically doesn’t go well for someone suffering from mental illness,” she said.

Joe McNally, who coordinates the HOME Team shifts lasting eight hours each day but Sunday, is happy to see more help on the streets.

“It is fantastic. We have been involved with Downtown for many years and we have told Casey there is clearly a change,” McNally said April 20.

Oxford Street will be collecting data on who and how the expanded services help,  Parritt said.

Parritt said the shelter has already been compiling data and is serving an average of 115 people daily since hours were expanded last December.

“Someone may come in for eight hours or one hour,” Parritt said, but staff is also looking to see what kinds of services, including housing referrals, the daytime guests are using.

No one asked expects immediate solutions this summer. More housing, more mental health services and more protection from people preying on residents and visitors are needed, advocates said.

“When you are talking about issues based on societal ills, solutions start 20 years in advance,” Sauschuck said.

But business owners like McVetty, who measure success on a daily basis, may not be able to wait that long.

“I pay the city of Portland a fee each year so that they may approve me to put tables and chairs in front of my deli,” she said. “… I have had so many tourists comment on the homeless and mentally ill population here, and say that they won’t be coming back.”

David Harry can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 110 or Follow him on Twitter: @DavidHarry8.

Kenny Wayne Beek sits outside the Casco Bay Ferry Terminal on April 18 in Portland. He hopes a housing voucher will get him off the street, while sobriety has kept him from being arrested this year.

Casey Gilbert, Portland Downtown executive director, said April 20 a collaboration with Amistad for peer outreach allows the business improvement district to take an active role in helping vulnerable city residents.

Living on Portland streets could end for Kenny Wayne Beek, who finally has a housing voucher he sought for a year. A spot to detox from alcohol use took months, he said as he sat by the Casco Bay Ferry Terminal April 18.