Solutions elusive as Portland streets get meaner

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PORTLAND — William Conley was getting thirsty as noon approached last Friday on Commercial Street.

“I like to have a cold one,” he said as he sat near Bill’s Pizza. Several feet away, another man slept on the sidewalk.

Two days earlier, Conley’s enjoyment of “cold ones” – actually his alcoholism and mental illness – brought his sister, Sue Conley, to City Hall to speak at an Aug. 23 public forum on what city spokeswoman Jessica Grondin called “downtown issues.”

“His (police) file must be thicker than a Bible,” Conley said, while suggesting mandatory rehab for people like her brother, who, she added, has also fallen off piers and injured himself in other ways while intoxicated.

For more than 90 minutes, Mayor Ethan Strimling and city councilors heard stories about more frequent downtown incidences of intoxication, intimidation, indecency, vandalism, assaults and thefts.

“This is a powerful issue the City Council alone cannot solve,” Councilor Nick Mavodones said.

Conley said her brother, who has been arrested five times this year on public drinking and disorderly conduct charges, is far from alone in his circumstances.

“My heart aches for a lot of them,” she said. “It stems from mental illness.”

If William Conley, a Marine Corps veteran who said he lives on a $730 disability check and the kindness of strangers, was a forum focal point, the owner of Sisters Gourmet Deli was a catalyst.

Earlier this month, Michaela McVetty posted a nine-minute video of Jesse J. Taylor’s vulgar rant July 29 inside the deli on Monument Square. Arrested shortly after at the Portland Public Library, he was charged with disorderly conduct, interference with constitutional rights and criminal mischief.

Taylor was sentenced to five days in the Cumberland County Jail and ordered not to go into the deli. Police also referred the incident to Maine Attorney General Janet Mills for review as a hate crime.

“When this happened, I didn’t know who to call, so I called the cops. He did not need to be arrested, but he was,” McVetty said Aug. 24.

Rick Porter, who lives above the deli, said he wants a stronger police presence downtown.

“You need to start with a deterrent, you have to set it up as these other steps go along,” he said.

From Commercial Street, across Congress Street and down into Bayside, calls and complaints about drinking, drug use, public urination or defecation, and reports of outbursts from people in need of mental health services are frequent.

“Whatever anyone else has experienced here, I probably have, too,” Cedar Street resident Sarah Michniewicz said Aug. 23. Last fall, she found an unconscious man on the sidewalk outside her home. When he came to, she said he chased her and masturbated in front of her.

Chance Baker was charged with indecent conduct for that incident. On Feb. 18, he was shot and killed by Portland Police Sgt. Nicholas Goodman outside the Subway restaurant at Union Station Plaza on St. John Street.

Police said they received 911 calls that Baker was armed and acting in a threatening manner. The weapon he carried was a pellet gun.

On Aug. 23, Michniewicz tearfully said she was sure he died without ever getting the mental health care he needed.

“What if he hadn’t gotten caught in the vortex of Cedar Street to Oxford Street?” she asked.

Bayside conditions also led Michniewicz and others to meet with city officials Aug. 8 to discuss community plans for the Oxford Street Shelter, hoping to identify short-term solutions to the neighborhood’s problems.

Meeting minutes show people want more information from the city about who to call “if there are issues that may pertain to homelessness, mental health and substance use.” The information should be on the city website, according to the minutes, and distributed in print to residents and business owners.

Other suggestions are a nicer Oxford Street Shelter courtyard “to give people the option of sitting there instead of on the sidewalk,” and finding city funding to help homeowners install motion-detector lighting.

On Aug. 23, Michniewicz suggested more public toilets and stronger law enforcement.

“You must hold bad actors accountable,” she said.

‘Not all homeless people are the same’

After posting the video, McVetty began speaking with social service providers, and said it has been an education.

“My advocacy is directed in that not all homeless people are the same,” she said. “So many are not intentional moochers. I have met so many people who have diagnosed illnesses and can’t get help.”

Porter, who loves his apartment for its view of the city’s annual Christmas tree and the vibrancy of living in the city, is less patient.

“I’ve already seen someone peeing (outside) today,” he said. On a landing below his apartment door, he pointed out a urine-stained rug, blaming someone who had come inside to sleep last winter.

Porter has been in active recovery for 10 years, and his path is one anyone could follow if they want to, he said. Meanwhile, he tells his son to walk the long way to school to avoid going through Bayside.

“My complete issue is, these people are not going to change unless they want to,” he said.

Porter wants more police in Monument Square, and a booth staffed by someone who can help direct people to services.

Police need people

Police Chief Michael Sauschuck also wants a larger community presence.

His plan to expand community policing, especially in downtown and Bayside has the necessary funding. What’s missing is the staffing. Police are already so short-staffed they are offering $10,000 to new officers and dispatchers who will work at least five years.

Last spring, Sauschuck noted calls to Bayside represented 21 percent of the department responses through October 2016, in an area where 5 percent of the city population resides.

“Law enforcement will not solve this by itself, but our piece is better accomplished if we have proper staffing across the board,” Sauschuck said Aug. 23.

Community policing is a key component to also preventing arrests, which Sauschuck said is a major part of the department’s mission.

On Monday, Sheriff Kevin Joyce said the Cumberland County Jail is not a long-term answer because most sentences are too brief to make long-term care and treatment viable.

William Conley’s last sentence for public drinking was 11 days, a reflection of his frequent court appearances, he said. That is about three times longer than average.

“We are not fixing the problem, we are putting a Band-Aid over a hemorrhage,” Joyce said. “You cannot force these folks to do something they are not willing to do. It takes time to build the trust and find the best thing for each individual. ”

Sauschuck and Joyce said the law enforcement problems come from a very small segment of the city’s homeless. Sauschuck puts it at 10 percent; Joyce said of the 256 people brought in on public drinking charges last year, 125 of them were repeat offenders.

Jail may not be a deterrent, but still costs taxpayers an average of $112 per inmate per day.

“They have a roof over their head, three meals and possibly a chance to shower up,” Joyce said. Once released, likely on time served, they will be heading back to the same circumstances that got them in trouble.

Conley and Timothy Whitten, who has also been arrested five times this year, said affordable housing is also scarce. Conley said U.S. Veteran’s Administration staff is on the lookout for housing, but he has been on the street for eight years.

Whitten, originally from Memphis, is an admitted alcoholic, and a very devout man who said his religion helps him through his worst times.

He sleeps in the shelter. Or a doorway, depending on weather and shelter crowding.

Like Conley, he seeks acknowledgment that he is human as he sits on Congress Street asking for change.

“People don’t have to give me squat, but at least give me a nod when I am talking to you,” he said.

Joe McNally oversees the Homeless Outreach and Mobile Engagement, or HOME Team, for the Milestone Foundation on India Street. Milestone offers detox, treatment and some housing for clients, and shelter space for those who are inebriated.

“There is a delusion Maine has all these programs and resources so people just have to want to get help,” McNally said Monday. “There are wait lists and barriers, things that play a role in whether people can access help.”

The HOME Team is often called by police or EMTs, and can prevent costlier ambulance rides or arrests while still getting people help and sustenance, but the nonprofit turns away as many as 100 people a month wanting to detox.

“I live in Portland and raise a family here, so I understand the quality of life concerns,” McNally said. “A lot of them are just, but instead of focusing on people they think are causing this, we need to focus on the system as a whole and understand it is broken. Our hands are tied until things really start to change.”

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

William Conley seeks spare change Aug. 25 on Commercial Street in Portland. Homeless for eight years, he said his last arrest on a public drinking charge got him an 11-day jail sentence.

Sisters Gourmet Deli owner Michaela McVetty’s post of an outburst in her restaurant by a man in need of mental health care also led to an Aug. 23 City Council forum regarding street issues in Portland.

Rick Porter loves his apartment above Portland’s Monument Square for many reasons, but is disenchanted by the increase in bad behavior and petty crimes outside.

Timothy Whitten on Congress Street in Portland Aug. 24. He has been arrested five times this year for public drinking and other charges, and wants to be seen as a person. “People don’t have to give me squat, but at least give me a nod when I am talking to you,” he said.

Portland City Hall reporter for The Forecaster. Baltimore native, lived in Maine since 1989. A journalist since 2005, covering much of Cumberland and York counties. I joined The Forecaster in 2012.