PORTLAND, Maine — Bruce Cavallaro picked through his waterlogged belongings behind Trader Joe’s on Monday morning. Overnight torrential rains and high winds decimated the already desperate conditions at the long-running homeless encampment along Bayside Trail.
“At least I got these,” Cavallaro said, pulling a dry package of snack crackers from a bag.
Last month, the city announced it was ready to clear the site where Cavallaro has been living in a tent since last fall. It tagged campers’ belongings with notices and prepared to haul everything away.
But so far, it’s held off doing so, acknowledging that every one of its 650 shelter beds are already occupied. That includes Portland’s brand new $24 million homeless services center on Riverside Street and the emergency shelter at the Expo.
On Tuesday, officials are hosting an emergency meeting to discuss the situation and try to decide what to do next.
With the encampment’s future in doubt and seemingly far from decided, campers along the trail continued to go about the business of surviving Monday after the storm.
Shivering in the damp cold, wrapped in a blanket and wearing just a pair of shorts and hoodie, Cavallaro looked through his belongings. Everything he owned — some clothes, sleeping bags, a little food — was sopping wet. Cavallaro’s tent lay in a crumpled heap, destroyed by the wind.
“Hey Brucie,” called a voice from a nearby small green tent. “You got any dry pants?”
“No. Sorry. This is all I got,” Cavallaro said, pointing to his scant outfit.
Then, Cavallaro took a final drag on his cigarette and tore into the crackers with shaking hands. Cavallaro said he wished he had a hot coffee to go with them. There was a nearby Dunkin Donuts, but he didn’t have any money.
Cavallaro also said his life wasn’t always like this.
Clockwise from left: A man pushes a shopping cart along the Bayside Trail in Portland on Monday morning past a cardboard panhandling sign in the wet grass. People emerge from tents on Monday morning at the Bayside Trail homeless encampment on Monday morning. A notice marked April 26 hangs on a tent pitched along Portland’s Bayside Trail on Monday morning; the notice states the homeless encampment was to be removed within 24 hours, but city officials have delayed that action, pending a meeting on the subject Tuesday nightCredit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN
“I was born here in Portland,” he said. “I grew up on Myrtle and Oxford streets.”
But after a stint in the Army, his parents’ death and a few bad breaks, he found himself without a permanent home, camping along the Bayside Trail with dozens of others.
“Like a lot of people down here, things just kind of snowballed,” Cavallaro said. “My brother’s been living in a motel in Scarborough, but he’s about to get kicked out.”
Bayside Trail is a paved urban walking path along a former railroad right-of-way. It’s sandwiched between the backside of Marginal Way businesses, a strip of undeveloped, former industrial land, and Somerset Street. City officials have long courted developers interested in the vacant land, which formerly housed scrap yards and a stove foundry, but nothing has materialized.
The trail is largely hidden by buildings and mounded, grassy verges meant to make it feel like a secluded urban oasis, which is likely why it’s become a popular place to camp. Several homeless agencies provide a steady stream of tents and other rough-sleeping gear for those staying there.
Monday, following the storm, the trail was littered with garbage, shoes, books, tarps, canned food, orange peels, bicycles, underwear, human feces, what looked like a pink unicorn costume and thousands of needles. Smashed tents, their poles sticking out like starfish legs, rolled like tumbleweeds. A red-and-white umbrella pinwheeled straight down the trail, sticking to the pavement as if it knew where it was going.
Around 10:30 a.m., as a heavy drizzle set in, three Portland police vehicles arrived at the half-mile stretch of trail between Franklin and Elm streets. Along with two women, a pair officers then went from tent to tent, shaking each one.
“Just doing some wellness checks,” said one officer, who didn’t stop walking.
The other stated they were looking for someone in particular. Both women accompanying said they were not allowed to say who they were or what they were doing. One appeared to be carrying a medical bag.
A few minutes later, all four were gone.
A little after 11 a.m., as the drizzle cleared up and a biting wind set in, two Portland firefighters appeared. One carried the kind of propane tank you would normally see attached to a barbecue grill. He dropped it off in front of a tent and a woman there thanked him.
The firefighter said he was just carrying it for her and that his department makes regular swings through the encampment, trying to make sure tanks are being used in a safe manner. Many of the 50 or so tents along the trail had multiple propane tanks outside.
A man known to those living in the encampment as General Abu emerged from an elaborate shelter made of tarps and scraps of wood as the sun finally broke free from the clouds overhead just before noon.
Abu said he managed to stay dry overnight because his shanty sits off the ground, thanks to a pallet and plywood floor.
“We had eight people in here last night, taking shelter from the storm — and six in there,” he said, pointing at a similar structure next door.
Not far away, a man shuffled, barefoot down the path, his dripping-wet boots in his hand, asking if anyone had any dry socks. Nobody did.
Two men sat in the grass behind a decorative evergreen tree, jabbing needles into their arms. Another man sat on a stone retaining wall, sharpening a huge hunting knife with a file.
At the other end of the path, Cavallaro gave up on finding anything else dry amongst his belongings. He was still thinking about a hot coffee, he said.
A few yards away, a chain link fence separated the bustling Trader Joe’s parking lot from Cavallaro’s disheveled encampment. He said a woman had called him a loser through the fence a few days earlier.
“You have whatever you need over there on that side of the fence,” he said. “But on this side of the fence, it’s different.”