Why evicting Portland’s “Tent City” inhabitants solves nothing

There has been a wide array of reactions to the news that the Portland Police Department has begun enforcing the evictions of the people living in what has come to be known in recent weeks as “Tent City”.

From online commentors, to media types, and all the way up to elected officials- it seems everyone has an opinion, but no one has a solution.

Photo- Chris Shorr, BDN.

A campsite in Portland’s “Tent City”. Photo- Chris Shorr, BDN.

Some think giving the homeless people the boot is the right decision to make under complicated circumstances, some think that the people living in the wooded tent encampment are lazy and should be arrested for trespassing, some only really seem to care about the little girl living there with her parents, and some think that we should just leave all the people living there alone.

The fact is, though, that no matter how anyone feels about the situation- until the root problems are addressed then nothing really changes.

That’s because it doesn’t matter how many times we try to brush the realities of homelessness under the rug, it doesn’t matter how many encampments are cleared out, it doesn’t matter how many broken heart emojis we share the story on Facebook with- Portland’s homelessness problems are here to stay.

Think back to 2012, when Portland Yacht Services moved to West Commercial Street. People were rightfully excited to see the long forgotten western side of Portland’s waterfront finally getting some attention and upkeep, but what most don’t realize is that when that boatyard was built the largest haven in town for homeless people not wanting to deal with the stresses of the shelter was clear-cut and dismantled.

A scene from Portland's "Hobo Jungle". Photo- Chris Shorr, BDN.

A scene from Portland’s “Hobo Jungle”. Photo- Chris Shorr, BDN.

For years, the area had been known as “Hobo Jungle,” and at any given time was home to dozens of people or more. Covered by think underbrush, Hobo Jungle was a maze of paths and tents.

It was a wretched place to live- a place where danger, desperation, illness and death were commonplace- but it was also a place where someone with nowhere else to go could rest their weary body without the hassle of anyone telling them to move it along.

And with almost no warning, it was gone.

Now think back to last December, when the Portland Police Department gave people living in an encampment along a stretch of I-295 a 24 hour notice to vacate. When the 24 hours were up, they went in and destroyed the campsites, tossing the personal property of the homeless people living there in the trash.

“It’s not being done without reason,” said Assistant Police Chief Vern Malloch at the time, citing safety concerns.

Malloch said that crimes- including sex crimes- go unreported at homeless encampments because the people living there fear that their campsites will be destroyed by responding police officers.

In other words, the police department claimed that homeless people weren’t reporting crimes because they were afraid their campsites would be torn down, so to solve the problem they just tore all the campsites down.

Again, with almost no warning, another Portland shantytown was gone.

But Portland’s homelessness epidemic was not.

A homeless woman gathers her things behind Portland's sports complex. Photo- Chris Shorr, BDN.

A homeless woman gathers her things behind Portland’s sports complex. Photo- Chris Shorr, BDN.

In fact, many of the people who once camped at Hobo Jungle or the stretch along I-295 wound up moving to Tent City after their former sites were destroyed.

That isn’t to say that another shantytown will suddenly spring up in another neglected part of town now that Tent City is being dismantled, although that may very well happen.

What’s more likely to happen- at least in the immediate future- is that several smaller sites will be built in various spots around the city.

Currently, homeless dwellings can be found in just about every hidden nook and cranny of Portland.

From the underbrush of the Eastern and Western Promenades, to the dark spaces beneath wharves and loading docks on the waterfront, to the alleyways of Bayside, under bridges, or any wooded area off peninsula- Portland’s homeless population hides with the ever present fear of being discovered.

To their credit, the Portland PD has known about Tent City for quite some time now and has allowed the people living there to stay, but their reasoning for finally stepping in and kicking everyone out is the same as it was when they cleared out the camp along I-295.

They’re blaming it on a recent rash of car break-ins and thefts at nearby businesses, concluding that the criminal activity must be coming from the Tent City even though the historically troubled neighborhood of Sagamore Village sits just on the other side of Brighton Avenue.

That isn’t to say that the crimes aren’t stemming from Tent City- just to make the point that jumping to conclusions is unfair- but the question remains that even if a few inhabitants of Tent City are to blame then in what playbook does it call for a complete eviction of a community just because of the actions of a few bad apples?

And in what world does anyone believe that casting out dozens of people struggling with destitution, mental illness, physical disabilities, and substance abuse disorders will solve any problems?

I’m not going to say what the Portland PD should have done, but what they could have done differently is treat the Tent City dwellers with enough respect to go in and investigate the issue, figure out who exactly was causing the sudden problems- in a place that people have been living in peacefully for years- and deal with the individuals accordingly.

A campsite and garden in Portland's "Tent City". Photo- Chris Shorr, BDN.

A campsite and garden in Portland’s “Tent City”. Photo- Chris Shorr, BDN.

That wouldn’t have been a perfect solution- because a perfect solution would include finding all the people safe housing- but it would have been a heck of a lot better than arbitrarily kicking everyone out.

As is evidenced from Hobo Jungle and the encampment on I-295- and concluded from simple common sense- most of the people who have been forced to leave Tent City will either go back to the already overcrowded shelters or else they’ll find another campsite.

Nothing solved, nothing gained, only lost.

A longtime resident of Portland's "Tent City" walks down one of the encampment's many pathways. Photo- Chris Shorr, BDN.

A longtime resident of Portland’s “Tent City” walks down one of the encampment’s many pathways. Photo- Chris Shorr, BDN.

Chris Shorr

About Chris Shorr

Chris is a sixth generation Portlander who loves all things Maine. He has worked with mentally ill and marginalized adults at a Portland non-profit, on a lobster boat in Casco Bay, at several high-end Portland restaurants, and at a local meat packing plant. He also ran for Portland City Council in 2013, wrote a weekly column in the now defunct Portland Daily Sun, and currently writes a weekly column in The Portland Phoenix.