A large group of struggling renters, unhoused people and their supporters mill around an encampment at City Hall Plaza on Tuesday morning. They’re calling for both immediate and long-term solutions to the city’s growing housing problem. Credit: Troy R. Bennett | BDN

PORTLAND, Maine — More than 100 homeless people, struggling renters and their advocates who have been camping out in tents at City Hall for more than two weeks say they plan to “stick out” a tropical storm that could bring high-powered winds of up to 50 mph to the coast, despite warnings to seek shelter at safer facilities.

Since the encampment formed there two weeks ago, Aaron Porter has considered it his job to keep people calm and safe. As skies darkened Tuesday over City Hall, Porter scurried around the site, checking in on people to see if their tents would be secure through the night.

“We’re just battening people down, making sure their tents aren’t going to go anywhere or get lifted off unexpectedly,” Porter said. “I’m feeling pretty confident that once the storm is over this will be back to normal.”

City staff and outreach workers from at least 10 social service agencies are encouraging people at the encampment to find beds at one of the city’s three overnight shelters in advance of Tuesday’s storm. But Porter and dozens of others tenting at City Hall intend to remain there through the night.

Leaving now might dilute their message.

They’ve been advocating for better social services for unhoused people in Portland, establishing overdose prevention sites and pushing the city to build more affordable housing.

A person’s feet stick out of a tent at an encampment outside City Hall on Tuesday morning in Portland. Campers and protestors are calling for both immediate and long-term solutions to the city’s growing housing problem. Credit: Troy R. Bennett | BDN

Volunteers at the encampment on Tuesday scrambled to dole out meals, water and tarps to people. A steady stream of them have kept the encampment running. They’ve hosted training sessions on how to administer life-saving naloxone for opioid overdoses, and solicited donations for those who need it at the encampment.

On Tuesday, they asked for supplies that could help folks weather the storm.

Steve Foley, a homeless volunteer at the encampment, spent Tuesday morning rationing Ziploc bags containing peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and poured milk into plastic cups. As he prepared food, others collected plates, napkins and anything else that might blow away into large trash bags, hurling them into city garbage trucks idling nearby.

“People are worried about what’s going to happen,” he said. “We can’t get the basic necessities.”

As temperatures pushed 80 degrees, volunteer Mike Bisson worked shirtless.

“We’re trying to get as many tarps, tents and rain gear as we possibly can to get everybody situated before the storm,” he said. 

Bisson’s constellation of tattoos included a large heart over his chest, obscuring the ink he got when he was briefly affiliated with a gang. Bisson said he “wasn’t very proud of” it.

He spent 9.5 years on the street, and while he’s since secured housing, he’s seen the situation get worse for others through the years.

“I know 65 people who have died in the last five years,” he said. “Every year they’re getting younger and younger. You got kids selling their souls out here for drugs, and judges wanting to [lock] them away forever.”

Since the pandemic, the city has boosted efforts to manage shelters according to guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, encouraging single adults to seek beds at its Oxford Street Shelter or emergency shelter at the Portland Expo Building. Both shelters are only half filled, according to city spokesperson Jessica Grondin. The city also maintains a family shelter on Chestnut Street and has helped 175 secure rooms at area motels weekly, efforts that have largely curtailed the spread of COVID-19 in the city’s homeless population.

Bisson said that he wasn’t a fan of the Oxford Street Shelter when he was homeless, calling it ”unsanitary” and a bad place for people who struggle with substance use disorder.

“I think the system’s broken,” Bisson said.

Many say they’ll remain at City Hall until the system is fixed.