PORTLAND — U.S. Sen. Angus King’s June 15 visit to the city covered about four blocks in two hours, over territory the independent congressman has walked before.
King and city and state officials toured Bayside to bring attention to issues including immigration, drug policy, homelessness and a dearth of available services.
“This is not an excuse, but a lot of this is local. I’m here because there are roles I can play,” King said in a 30-minute discussion at the Portland Family Shelter on Chestnut Street.
The visit extended from the shelter, now filled beyond capacity largely by asylum- seekers ineligible for federal assistance, to the community policing station on Portland Street, where officers deal daily with the effects of unmet mental health and substance use disorder needs.
King, who recently announced his re-election bid, said the visit would help him and his colleagues understand the depth of problems people are facing.
“Seeing these challenges firsthand underscores the gravity of the situation, which is impacting families like those in the Bayside neighborhood, and in communities I’ve met with across Maine,” he said in a post-visit press release June 15. “I will bring the stories shared with me today back to Washington as I continue to urge my colleagues to increase the strength of our response to the opioid epidemic.”
As shelter director Jeff Tardiff led King through the combined buildings intended to hold 150 people, King also noted keeping families together was the less expensive, more humane way approach.
“The federal government should be funding this instead of what they are doing at the border,” he said. On June 15, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security confirmed almost 2,000 children were separated from their parents while trying to cross the order from April 19 to May 31.
“The families are together here,” Tardiff said, showing rooms of bunk beds as a man carrying an infant quietly walked past.
Three years ago, King sought to change immigration laws to allow asylum-seekers to be cleared to work in 30 days, instead of 180. The bill did not pass, but he said he is ready to try again.
Beyond immigration, King heard details of the lack of accessible care for people in need, the petty crimes detrimental to the quality of life, and the lack of affordable housing.
“Where do we spend our time to be most effective?” asked Laura Cannon of the Bayside Neighborhood Association.
The discussion, which also included city councilors, Police Chief Michael Sauschuck and City Manager Jon Jennings, took so long it truncated King’s visit to the Oxford Street Shelter, which last winter began operating throughout the day.
On June 26, the council Health & Human Services and Public Safety Committee will hear a recommendation on where to place a new homeless shelter and to develop what Jennings emphasized is a new shelter system.
Yet what Jennings, Sauschuck and others told King is the lack of funding for services is the bigger problem the city faces, one worsened because people come to the city from other communities.
In the brief time he could visit the Oxford Street Shelter, King asked director Rob Parritt to have his staff forward suggestions on how changes in federal rules could make operating the shelter easier.
“Poking the agencies,” the Senator said. “That I can do.”
Portland City Manager Jon Jennings, left, and indepedent U.S. Sen. Angus King of Maine outside the Oxford Street Shelter on June 15.