Chris Sheehy of Portland holds a sign at a march against homelessness in the city in August. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

Homelessness is spiking in Portland amid the economic effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, city officials said. 

The increase comes as homelesness grows across Maine amid the economic fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic. Last month, Bangor police and social services cleared out about a dozen tents that had popped up along the Penobscot River last month — a visible sign of a population increasingly without shelter. 

The pandemic has made it increasingly difficult for housing insecure residents across Maine to couch surf — staying with a friend or family member, usually for a short period — and decreased the number of affordable housing units.

Already at high levels before the COVID-19 pandemic, homelessness in Maine’s largest city has grown during the pandemic, with many residents losing their jobs due to the resulting economic downturn. 

City-run shelters were housing 539 people as of last Monday, the most since an influx of migrant families swelled numbers in the summer of 2019, the Portland Press Herald reported.

Portland has halved the capacity at its city-run shelters to decrease the spread of COVID-19 — which is known to spread quickly in homeless shelters and other group living situations. To deal with increasing numbers, city officials have put hundreds in local hotels free of charge, the Press Herald reported.  

In April, officials announced they would close Portland’s city shelter to new residents after two people tested positive for the coronavirus. 

Closings and capacity reductions, as well as other effects of COVID-19 on the city’s housing insecure population, have drawn harsh responses from the city’s homeless population and local activists. In July, more than 100 protesters gathered in tents outside City Hall, demanding that the city give more resources to its homeless and low-income residents.

The city has responded by attempting to find new housing for homeless residents, including increasing stays in local hotels and developing a plan to temporarily house people at the Cross Insurance Insurance. That proposal was unanimously rejected by the Cumberland County commissioners, who said the 6,200-seat venue was not suited to house people.  

The city is currently in the process of sheltering people in a low-security inmate facility at Cumberland County Corrections complex during the winter months, though that proposal has generated controversy.