Sep. 17—From the familiar sounds of a late summer evening in Deering Oaks Park — the hum of cars, the thump of running shoes, the breeze through the oaks — rose a hymn.
More than 100 people gathered near the benches where, a week prior, 31-year-old Walter Omal was shot and killed. His death was part of a spike in violent crime across the city that has prompted more patrols, including in Deering Oaks.
On Wednesday night, however, the park was nearly empty except for the vigil. Sobs broke through the songs. Candles lit the faces of the mourners. They came to this place to be together, as others do.
Deering Oaks is many things to many people.
It is a twice-weekly farmers' market, an outdoor classroom for King Middle School across the street, a playing field, a performance space, a wading pool on a hot day and a frozen pond for skating on a cold one, a backyard for nearby apartments, a place to walk the dog, smell the roses or sleep at night. When the pandemic shut the city's only day shelter and the number of people without housing surged, it also became a place of refuge for those with nowhere else to go.
These many uses have tested the credo of this 55-acre public park.
"We're kind of at a crossroads of trying to keep this space safe and welcoming to everybody and balancing that against some of the challenges that we see," said Ethan Hipple, director of the city's parks, recreation and facilities department. "We've got a lot of great things happening in the park, but huge challenges that are very visible."
One week after Omal's death, the sun rose over the park, still damp from overnight rain.
Kids walked toward King Middle School on Deering Avenue. City workers examined the fountain at the center of the empty pond, which had been drained the week before to look for evidence from the shooting. Two people slept on a tarp, and a man with a cardboard sign made his way toward the intersection of High Street and Forest Avenue. A couple of people passing through the park stopped to check on someone who was lying near the rose garden; they moved on when he startled awake.
It was barely 8 a.m., but Hannah Daman had been at the Goranson Farm stand at the Portland Farmer's Market for hours. As customers shopped for vegetables, Daman arranged a bunch of purple flowers into a bouquet. She doesn't work at the Dresden farm as much since she started her own business (Maine Maple Creemee Co.) but didn't want to quit her market shifts. On Wednesday, this stand and others were a mix of seasons, summer blooms next to fall squash.
"It's a cool crossover time," Daman, 34, said.
Cameron Gokey, a sous chef at the Portland restaurant Twelve, pulled a full cart behind him as he walked from stall to stall. He had crossed off many of the items on his list: cucumber, golden tomatoes, one quart of cider, green beans. Still left: corn, chives, one bunch of sunflowers.
"I'm heavily reliant on the farmers here," Gokey, 29, said.
On the nearby courts, market chatter gave way to sneaker squeaks and racket smacks. The courts here are striped for both tennis and pickleball. They "have to learn to share," joked Sam Beal, the unofficial organizer of these daily matches. On Wednesday, a dozen pickleball games were in full swing and open to anyone who wanted to join.
Bob Hunn, 73, started playing pickleball at the South Portland Community Center when he moved to the area in 2019, and he learned about the games at Deering Oaks from his friends there. He likes that this sport — and these courts — can be enjoyed by people of any age or gender.
"It's competitive without being vicious," he said.
At the onset of the pandemic, the nonprofit Preble Street shut down the only day shelter in Portland, for good. Other buildings, including the Portland Public Library, temporarily closed to the public. Homeless people had even fewer places to go than before, and many took refuge in Deering Oaks.
Camping is not allowed in the park, but some people do sleep there. Others spend the night in more hidden spots outdoors or on a friend's couch. Some go to shelters, but not everyone feels comfortable or is allowed to stay there.
Preble Street also transitioned its soup kitchen to a delivery system during the pandemic. They were bringing meals to the park at first, but the city put a stop to that after people complained about trash and drug use. The agency still delivers food to shelters and areas near Deering Oaks.
In 2020, dozens camped out at Portland City Hall for two weeks to protest the desperate conditions for people without housing. They eventually disbanded without a clear commitment from the city to meet their demands, which included establishing overdose prevention sites and legalizing camping in city parks. Many went from City Hall Plaza right back to Deering Oaks.
This July, the city formalized a new policy: If shelters are full, campsites won't be disturbed unless they're a hazard.
Brian Townsend, executive director of Amistad, a social service agency that works with people who are homeless, mentally ill and struggling with addiction, said passersby often make negative judgments about people they see in the park but do not ask the bigger questions about how to solve the problems they are facing.
"Everyone there is also a community member, is also a person using the park," Townsend said. "I hope that people don't see this as a Portland failure, frankly even a Maine failure. I hope that people think about the story that Deering Oaks tells as being national in scope. It's a failure at a societal level that does need addressing."
Hipple, from the parks department, said the city is struggling to balance safety and accessibility.
"The park is an attractive place to be," Hipple said. "There's shade. There's grass. It's not a surprise that people do gravitate toward it. Our position as a department and a city is that everybody has a right to be in the park, including homeless people, and the issue is misuse of the park. So it's the negative behaviors that are not welcome in the park, such as smoking, drinking, drug use and unfortunately, the past few years, we've seen an alarming number of assaults and other crimes there, up to the tragedy we saw last week."
Robby Burton, 55, used to sleep in Deering Oaks but recently moved into a recovery house. He still comes to the park nearly every day, bringing a sweatshirt for a friend when the temperatures dip and ponchos when the forecast calls for rain. He said people who gather in this area also want it to be a safe place, and he talked about the many times he has used Narcan on people who were overdosing in the park.
Hipple said the park's maintenance crew spent 60 percent of its time this summer trying to keep up with litter in Deering Oaks. They have turned to neighborhood groups, nonprofits and park users to help. Burton said he and others have tried to keep the park clean by picking up trash and needles — even when they did not have safe places for disposal. When a city worker thanked him for cleaning, Burton asked for rakes and bags. So the city set up trash bins and left a few rakes and shovels for those wanting to help.
"If one person does something, it reflects on all of us," Burton said. "So everybody tries."
He talked about sources of comfort he found in the park: the rose garden, the geese who eat out of the palm of his hand, the midnight quiet.
"It's so beautiful," Burton said. "I'd lay here at night in a sleeping bag and look at the sky."
On Wednesday, 50 or so people hung out in the sliver of park between High Street and Forest Avenue. They sat in the shade, talking or sleeping, bikes and backpacks nearby. There was very little trash on the ground, and the city rakes were propped on trees.
Paul Cann, 48, said he's afraid of enclosed spaces after spending time in jail, and Deering Oaks feels more comfortable and less chaotic than the city shelter. He often spends days at the park, sometimes sleeping there.
"They try to get us to go somewhere, but where are you going to go?" he said.
One woman who did not want to be named said she became homeless in 2019 after a fire. She said the stress caused her to start using drugs again. She cried as she talked about her daughter, who is staying with family but is struggling with depression and loneliness.
"No one should have to live like this," she said. "If we weren't in the park, it's like out of sight, out of mind. But we're here."
Ashish Shrestha waved to a friend as he walked up to Deering Oaks. He comes here most days as part of his job as the outreach coordinator at Amistad. He chatted with a man who moved into an apartment earlier this summer but used to sleep in the park.
"Everything they need is here," the man said.
"Including community," Shrestha said.
Portland bought this land from the Deering family in 1879 in exchange for a promise that it would always be used as a park and a tax break on another piece of property. In 1894, the city added what is described in "Bold Vision," a history of the city's parks, as "a luxurious little stone building" as a warming hut for ice skaters. It was converted into restrooms in the 1950s and restored to its original glory a half-century later. It has been a visitor center and a café, and sat empty for two years before Queenie's Castle opened.
Victoria "Queenie" Thayer grew up in Portland. This summer, she opened a café in the historic building overlooking the pond she visited as a child to feed popcorn and peanuts to the ducks.
The afternoon was warm and sunny. She sold iced coffees to a couple walking around the park, but said business had been slow since the fatal shooting on the other side of the pond.
"Thursday and Friday, it was a crime scene," she said.
Thayer is still figuring out her hours and her specialty (see the Queenie's Castle Instagram for updates). She just got a pizza oven and has ordered a hot chocolate machine for the winter. She has some regulars but believes the castle's proximity to campsites is keeping some customers away. Thayer said officers found furniture from her patio at a nearby tent, and she called police once because a man was exposing himself in the window and another time because she was afraid a woman nearby had died from an overdose. She has compassion, she said, but she also has a business.
"The city has to come up with a solution," Thayer said.
Dusk fell in Deering Oaks. The playground and playing fields emptied out. Across the empty pond shone dozens of candles.
It is not clear what brought Omal to the park that day, and police have released few details about what has been described as an isolated incident. Omal was shot around 6:30 p.m. on Sept. 7 near a pair of park benches facing the pond close to the intersection of Park Avenue and State Street. He was rushed to the hospital and later died.
Amin Awes Mohamed, 38, from Boston is charged with one count of murder and is being held without bail at Cumberland County Jail. An affidavit that could explain the evidence in the case has been sealed.
Many of the people who gathered to mourn Omal are part of the South Sudanese Acholi community in Maine, and they prayed together for his family. Omal's brother said he was not ready to speak about him.
The sky was dark when the mourners began to disperse with hugs and soft words. Some paused at a memorial where flowers rested and a few candles still burned. The tapers melted on the park path, leaving drops of wax.