PORTLAND — Four people were packing up tents and possessions beneath a Maine Turnpike overpass Thursday, expecting city police to confront them at any moment.
They were the last of about two dozen who had made their homes on more than 30 acres of vacant land behind Pine Tree Shopping Center, until the city decided last month that it was time to clear the encampment.
Two of them spoke at length the day before about orders from city police to vacate the fields and woods between Brighton Avenue, Rand Road and the Maine Turnpike.
“We are being harassed for being down and out,” said Aaron, who didn’t want to provide his last name and didn’t want to leave the space he and his companion, Sarah, had called home since mid-spring.
Traffic thundered overhead while Sarah defended their lifestyle.
“We all have our reasons to be out here; we don’t want to be here,” she said. “I like it here, it is peaceful. I know that sounds funny to say.”
Assistant Police Chief Vern Malloch agreed those inhabiting the land preferred outdoor living to staying in the city’s homeless shelters. One person received a criminal trespass notice Sept. 1, and Malloch said anyone cited would be subject to arrest or a summons if they violate the notice.
But, he said, “Our preference is not to have to arrest people.”
He also was not sure it was as peaceful as Sarah suggested.
Last month, police responded to calls at the shopping center about a trash bin fire linked to a suspect who lived in the woods. Police were also looking for a registered sex offender who was not complying with state notification laws. Last week, a stabbing left a man with minor injuries.
“The department understands the majority of people living there have chosen to live there,” Malloch said. “We know as a community we can do better, and the conditions were awful.”
Among those who lef the encampment were a family of three police said had found housing in Lewiston. Malloch said police, city staff and Preble Street staff worked for about a month to help residents of the encampment find new lodging.
“There have been some successes,” Malloch said.
Jaime McLeod, Preble Street communications manager, said outreach by the Preble Street Clinical Intervention Program was going on before the eviction was ordered, and stepped up when residents were ordered out.
Results have been mixed.
“Unfortunately, there just aren’t enough shelter beds at the city’s Oxford Street Shelter for all of the people who are without homes right now, so a lot of people end up getting sent to the overflow at the General Assistance office, where they have to sit up all night in chairs,” McLeod said. “Also, the conditions in the shelter are such that many people find it preferable to sleep outdoors.”
That was Aaron’s point, too.
He said he, Sarah and other companions have rental vouchers, but nowhere to use them. With medical problems he said keep him hospitalized at least one week of every month, Aaron said finding steady work is impractical and the city housing shortage hits them hard.
“There’s going to be 30 more people at an overcrowded shelter now,” he said.
Aaron and Sarah had pitched a tent at the outskirts of the encampment. They said there were places they could shower in town, and they did odd jobs or “signed” for money at street corners.
“We’re clean. We do laundry, we take care of ourselves,” he said.
The couple agreed sanitary conditions varied throughout the area, but said they threw away their garbage and the litter dropped from the overpass. Their days could be spent socializing, playing board games, reading, or doing puzzles.
“We’ve got puzzles galore,” Sarah said. “We even have our own library.”
The varied camp conditions were evident Aug. 31 as Police Sgt. Andrew Hutchings and Officers Kathryn Phelan, Les Smith and Zachery Grass searched the area.
Some structures were enclosed, one had a porch door. Pallets, bicycles, coolers, mattresses, furniture and a boom box were left behind. Malloch said it was evident there was a generator in use at one site, and the stabbing stemmed from a dispute over charging a cell phone.
Aaron and Sarah said they brought in and disposed of their food. But as Grass and Phelan passed another campsite, a freshly skinned squirrel hide and nearby animal trap showed wildlife was on someone’s diet.
“We operate from the standpoint that homelessness is not a choice these folks have made; they made a choice to stay there as opposed to staying at a shelter,” Malloch said.
The network of hard-packed trails runs over land tax records indicate is owned by Rand Road Holdings LLC and the Maine Department of Transportation. Pine Tree Shopping Center, including a Lowe’s home improvement store, are on land owned by another limited liability corporation.
Sarah said she and Aaron would not have stayed long into the winter, but did not like the alternatives eviction presented.
“This is a peaceful community,” Aaron said. “There are more problems back where we are forced to go.”
Aaron and Sarah prepare to leave their campsite under the Maine Turnpike in Portland on Aug. 31, but are unhappy about an order by police to move on. “I like it here, it is peaceful,” Sarah said.
Portland Officers Zachery Grass and Kathryn Phelan examine the hide from a squirrel trapped for a meal at a homeless encampment off Brighton Avenue. Police cleared the property Aug. 31 and Sept. 1.
The inhabitants were gone, but the refuse remained Aug. 31 at a campsite behind the Pine Tree Shopping Center in Portland. Police and city staff tried to place residents of the encampment in new housing, and many were expected to go to homeless shelters.