PORTLAND, Maine — It started early, before 8 a.m., but it was already sweltering.
Dozens of city workers, police officers and representatives from area homeless aid agencies converged on the Fore River Parkway Trail on Wednesday morning and began clearing tents, belongings and people from a long-established homeless campsite there.
Despite recent efforts at finding housing for residents living along the trail, about 50 people were still calling it home when the heavy loaders and dump trucks arrived and started hauling their things away to a local incinerator.
It’s the third such large homeless encampment clearance in Portland this year. The city conducted a similar operation at a sprawling site along the Bayside Trail in the spring and the state removed a smaller camp near Interstate 295 last week.
Critics watching the scene unfold on the Fore River Parkway Trail said the clearance would do nothing to help solve Portland’s growing housing problems and predicted campers would simply set up their tents and makeshift shelters elsewhere in the city.
“This is just Whack-a-Mole,” said William Higgins of Homeless Advocacy 4 All. “Where will people go when there’s no place to go? They’re just going to end up down on Marginal Way.”
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Higgins was referring to another large-scale encampment in a state-owned park-and-ride lot near the interstate.
“Don’t go to the Marginal Way lot,” he then announced several times, through a loudspeaker, while handing out bottles of water. “That will be the next lot that gets cleared.”
Jim Devine of Homeless Voices for Justice arrived after 9 a.m. to help residents pack up and get their belongings out of the way before being scooped up and carted off.
“I was homeless for years, until I quit drinking,” Devine said. “I know what it’s like — and I’ve been coming down here, playing guitar with some of these folks, they aren’t bothering anyone. They’re just trying to survive. The city should give them more time.”
Nearby, a Portland police officer rousted a man in a tent.
“Hey guy,” the officer said, shaking the tent, “It’s time. This is not a surprise. Grab it and go.”
City officials set the clearance date months ago. Signs were hung along the trail announcing the decision and a city crisis response team has canvassed the trail since the spring. But, according to city officials, only a handful of campers had gotten into more permanent housing.
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The shirtless man then emerged from the tent, sweating, stuffing his things into a garbage bag. A few minutes later, he was gone with what he could carry.
A half-hour later, a piece of heavy equipment scraped the earth where his tent had stood, shoveling up garbage, clothing, needles, food and human waste.
Not far away, a distraught woman shouted.
“This is the City Council doing this,” she said, “And I guarantee you, every member is sitting at home right now, next to their air conditioners.”
Portland Parks Director Alex Marshall worked farther down the trail, filling a five-gallon bucket with discarded needles he was picking up, one at a time, with a three-foot grabber. Marshall said the operation was an “all hands on deck” event involving dozens of city workers.
One worker, who didn’t want to give his name, said his regular job was fixing sidewalks. He didn’t think the clearance would change the city’s “big picture homeless” problem.
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“I don’t know what the answer is but people are already setting up a new camp behind Shaw’s,” he said, referring to another stretch of the same trail network, west of where he was standing.
A camper who only gave his name as Peter, stood atop his makeshift, wood-and-plastic-sheeting shanty, leaning on an impressive balcony railing, talking with a bearded worker.
“Yo, this took me six months to build,” Peter said. “I got a king size bed in here.”
The worker looked sheepish.
“Sorry man,” he said, apologizing. “It’s the City Council’s decision.”
“It’s OK, bro. I understand,” Peter said. “I’m just going to set this back up somewhere else.”