PORTLAND, Maine — Beneath the thin shelter of worn tents and stretched tarps, 27 people have been living in a trash-strewn patch of woods cornered between the Pine Tree Shopping Center, the Maine Turnpike and an old railroad track that runs close to the Portland-Westbrook city line.
But this week, the Portland Police Department responded to a recent rash of car break-ins and thefts at businesses near the encampment by issuing a notice of trespass, telling the homeless men, women and families that they are breaking the law and must move on before Aug. 22.
Some of the homeless residents of the encampment have left in the past days and others, who say they’ve lived in the woods for more than a year, have been left wondering where they will go next.
The tent village will be the second outdoor homeless camp that has been cleared in Portland over the past year and is being broken down even as the city’s shelters struggle to accommodate the homeless population that has spiked in recent years.
A survey conducted this year found there to be at least 115 homeless people living outdoors around Portland, according to Donna Yellen, the chief program officer for Preble Street Resource Center.
“We are really concerned about the great numbers of people that are camping out because of the housing shortage in Portland,” Yellen told BDN Portland. “We see people living outside much more than ever before.”
Wesley Spear, 65, said he moved out to the small woods on the Portland-Westbrook border in December, after state highway crews dismantled a series of tents where he and nearly two dozen other people were living in the brush along the Portland access ramp to the Interstate 295.
Spear and others who have been in the woods for some time say the break-ins and burglaries are the work of a handful of newcomers who’ve also brought increased drug use and domestic violence to their small community.
Spear became homeless 10 years ago, after his wife suddenly slipped into a coma and died. That’s when something in him snapped, and he fled his home and left his five grown children in Montana, the veteran said.
After 20 years in the army, he is haunted by flashbacks to the conflicts in Bosnia, Grenada and Iraq, which get especially bad when he sleeps indoors.
Spear said the rash of crime leaves the police no choice but to break up the camp but doesn’t know what he and the younger residents over whom he feels protective will do next.
“When you have some people committing crimes the police have no choice but to lump everyone in together out here,” Spear said. “I don’t want to be here when the police arrive.”
Lt. James Sweatt of the Portland Police Department confirmed that police are seeking suspects in connection to crimes around the homeless encampment but declined to comment further.
“The Police Department or the property owner will begin to remove all unauthorized structures and belongings on August 22, 2016,” an Aug. 10 notice of trespass reads on police department letterhead specifying the location of the camp. It was provided to BDN Portland by Yellen.
Corey Light, 23, said he’s been homeless since he was 16 and living in the woods since his young children were placed in foster care 2½ years ago.
He says he and his girlfriend have managed to save money for an apartment, but he said they’ve had trouble finding a landlord who will take them because they are homeless.
“It’s not that we want to be here,” Light said. “I just don’t have anywhere else to go.”