Nov. 21—Bruce Cavallaro didn't have much hope ahead of the Portland City Council's vote on whether or not to allow public camping through the winter. But when he learned that Order 68 had failed, he couldn't hide his disappointment. His shoulders sank beneath his heavy winter coat as he sighed.
"If they sweep us from here it's going to be just as bad if not worse than the last times," he said. "This is kind of like the last area of hope for some people."
Cavallaro, who is 45 and a veteran, said he has been pushed out of four homeless encampments in the city. Through all the sweeps, he has stuck near his brother and dog, who help him cope with his post-traumatic stress disorder from his time in the Army. He says he can't go into a shelter without his brother, who wont go himself because of their dog, Jax.
"Because of my PTSD, if I wake up and I don't know the people around me, I have severe panic attacks. In the shelter there are so many unknown people. Jax and my brother help me stay calm," said Cavallaro.
When the City Council shot down the proposal to allow public camping in a 6-3 vote early Tuesday morning, many of the councilors who voted against the proposal said they wanted to focus on bringing people inside and filling shelter beds. They all echoed the sentiment that allowing people to sleep outside would be cruel.
None of the 60 or so people who spoke during the four hours of public comment were currently homeless. Desirae Rowe, 35, who lives in the Harbor View encampment, said she didn't attend because she cannot leave her things unattended at night out of fear that something would be stolen. Plus, City Hall is a long walk from the park, she said.
What happens next remains unclear. The city hasn't set a date to clear the encampment at Harbor View Park, the largest remaining one in the city. And some of the expected 170 new shelter beds won't open for at least another week.
LIFE IN THE ENCAMPMENT
At the park on a sunny afternoon on Tuesday, volunteers handed out sandwiches, several outreach workers kneeled in front of open tents talking to homeless residents and someone swept trash from the sidewalk. Many homeless people there said the encampment sweeps are cruel.
Rowe was forced to leave the Marginal Way encampment on Nov. 1, when the state cleared the site. She said she is just starting to find her footing at Harbor View Park. She has reconnected with some friends she trusts and she finally found a tent after nearly three weeks without one. But Rowe is reluctant to invest in anything that might make her more comfortable because she worries she will have to move again and lose her things.
"I don't want to go out and try to get a propane tank or clothes or anything like that because it will just get lost again next time they move us," she said. "As it stands now, I spend most of the day just trying to get my basic needs met. Like, if I want to take a shower, I have to walk all the way across town to the gym. If I want to charge my phone, I have to find someone who will let me borrow a charger."
Rowe wishes the city would allow people to camp, if only in one designated area. She thinks it would allow her to stabilize. She says her former boss in the Old Port told her he would hire her again if she could get clean.
"Just show us where we can put stuff and we'll stay. We'll keep it clean and be respectful. Just give us a place to do it. I guarantee it would be less of a problem because we could all settle down for a bit and just get on our feet," she said.
Donnie, 62, who declined to give his last name, has been homeless on and off for about 10 years. Until a few months ago he was living in his car parked along the power line in Buxton. But then the police told him he had to move along, so he came and set up camp in Portland. He was forced to move from the Marginal Way encampment a few weeks ago and has been at Harbor View Park ever since. He has a deformed arm from multiple breaks that went untreated and has trouble working because of his limited mobility. He gets $150 in disability checks a week from the state.
"Trust me, I want to get out of here, but it's not even enough to get a room," he said.
He said if the city does sweep Harbor View Park, he's not sure where he will go next. Maybe he'll sleep outside the library on Congress Street like he did a few years ago, he said.
"I have no clue whatsoever, there aren't many places left to go. I can't afford a place. I can't even get a motel room. I put in for housing but I haven't heard anything," he said, noting that his phone stopped working a few weeks ago after he couldn't pay the bill.
He thinks the only way his social worker would be able to notify him about housing would be if they came to find him in the encampment. That's the way he's connected with support services in the past, he said.
The City Council meeting elicited passionate public comment from a wide variety of Portlanders. One commenter, Elizabeth Capone-Newton climbed atop the mayor's desk while blasting music in what appeared to be a protest of the council's vote. She was later charged with criminal trespassing, refusing to submit to arrest and obstructing government administration, according to a Portland police spokesperson. She was booked at the Cumberland County Jail early Tuesday.
Other commenters cried and shouted into the mic. A common concern among those who opposed the proposal was that that allowing camping enables homeless people to continue living in bad conditions.
Mayor-elect Mark Dion emphasized his concern that the encampments have become too "sticky" — in other words, comfortable. At Monday's meeting, he said he supported continuing the sweeps because he thinks they force homeless people into making healthier decisions and getting on their feet.
"I think it does motivate people to make a decision," he said.
Donnie said the shelter isn't an option for him because he likes to drink beer in the evenings, and he said the employees there treat him like an inmate, rather than a client.
The city has struggled over the past few months to convince people from the encampments to move into the city shelter. As the weather has chilled they have reported more success, but many people still turn down shelter beds for a variety of reasons. The city's Encampment Crisis Response Team is continuing to work on marketing the shelter and dispelling myths about it in the encampments.
During deliberations Monday, Councilor Roberto Rodriguez and City Manager Danielle West went back and forth several times about what alternative options might be available should Order 68 fail. None of the councilors who voted against the order offered a more specific plan than simply focusing on bringing people into shelter and working with community partners. Rodriguez said he was concerned that the city cannot offer enough beds to shelter everyone who is currently homeless in the city.
"Given the fact that even when 170 beds come online there are still going to be people who remain outdoors through the winter, I just don't understand what we expect them to do" said Rodriguez.
"There's 121 tents at Harbor View, I think we can serve those people," said West, who emphasized that the city does not know the total number of people sleeping outside in Portland, only the number of tents. As of Nov. 21, that was 230.
"I would say given our track record that is unlikely to happen" said Rodriguez.
In a 6-3 vote the council ultimately decided to pass the order off to the Health and Human Services Committee, chaired by Councilor April Fournier, for further review. Rodriguez and Anna Trevorrow, who brought the order forth, said that the motion felt somewhat empty. Even if some version of the order were to make it out of committee and eventually pass, they said it would likely be too late to have an impact on those camping at Harbor View.