Portland city councilors may vote next week on a proposal to allow homeless camps on public property through the winter, dividing mayoral candidates on the eve of their hotly contested Tuesday election.
City Councilors Roberto Rodríguez and Anna Trevorrow are proposing the idea, which would amend three sections of Portland’s code of ordinances and pause a prohibition on public camping until April 30.
Those local laws have been used to enforce controversial “sweeps” on camps as recently as last week. Increasing homelessness, which intersects with Maine’s affordable housing crisis and a rush of asylum seekers, has dominated city politics over the last several months as policymakers have struggled to find both comprehensive solutions and short-term fixes.
There are 208 tents throughout the city of Portland, according to a city dashboard checked on Nov. 6, including 152 on city property.
The Rodríguez-led plan was publicized on Monday by Enough is Enough, a political group aligned with businesses that obtained it in a public records request. The group has pressured the city’s mostly progressive crop of elected officials on the issue.
“To put it simply: these councilors are taking a dangerous and unacceptable situation and making it worse,” Matt Marks, a lobbyist who serves as a spokesperson for Enough is Enough, said in a statement.
On Monday, Rodríguez blamed the current code for the existence of large camps. After the sweeps, there is now only one public park where homeless people can camp. That one massive camp at Harbor View Memorial Park is seeing “exacerbated” criminal activity, he noted.
“This is just short-term crisis management, and acknowledging that our policies are getting in the way of accomplishing our goals,” Rodríguez said Monday.
Allowing people to camp in public parks and removing “emphasis areas” where camping is banned will break up large encampments and allow for social workers to build relationships with homeless people without the chaos and disruption of sweeps, Rodríguez argued on Monday.
But his idea fell flat with Councilor Mark Dion, a former Cumberland County sheriff and state lawmaker who has emphasized public safety more than other candidates when discussing Portland’s homelessness issues.
His view is that those living in large encampments need “tough love.” Sweeps should continue on a regular schedule and those living in them should be directed to voluntarily enter a shelter, or be ordered by courts to enter a detox program and to transitional housing, he said.
“We’ll let it spread out like a virus throughout the whole city, and then what does that say?” Dion said of the proposal. “That we’ve conceded control, you know, to individuals who have demonstrated a lack of control.”
Candidate Dylan Pugh stands on the opposite side of the issue. The 34-year-old, who didn’t have political experience prior to his mayoral run, has made solving Portland’s housing crisis a central tenet of his candidacy.
Pugh would support lifting the anti-camping ordinance because it would end the sweeps on a short-term basis, although he expressed concerns that dispersing unhoused people around Portland might make it harder to connect them with social services.
“This is obviously a short-term solution,” Pugh said. “We need to be talking to folks to get them moved into a permanent or transitional space.”
The other three candidates in the mayoral race, Councilors Andrew Zarro and Pious Ali, as well as former Councilor Justin Costa, were all unavailable for comment on Monday.
Rodríguez and Trevorrow’s proposed amendments will appear on the council’s agenda for a first reading on November 13.