Homeless Voices For Justice holds a vigil before the meeting:
Monday, November 18 was an eventful night for Portland’s city hall, with officials hearing hours of testimony from the city’s residents on several agenda items. Prior to the meeting, the local group Homeless Voices For Justice held a silent vigil for deceased residents who lost their lives due to homelessness. Standing on the steps of city hall the large group held cardboard displays to make clear the devastating impact of homelessness on foot traffic for 30 minutes before the council meeting began. The group likewise assembled to protest the proposed bed cap for the shelter being constructed in the riverside area. Inside, the group was joined by countless residents to provide input on the city’s resolution before it moved to a vote.
Many groups give testimony on the new shelter proposal:
With lines that extended out the door of the council chamber, the first agenda item alone took quite a while to complete. After hearing the report from a representative of the school department, those present learned that the number of homeless youth in schools has risen over 80% to an excess of 200 students since 2015. Many gave their input stating that they wished for the council to continue its 30-year tradition of providing emergency shelter to anyone who needs it. Several riverside residents attended to voice concerns that despite attempts on their part, they felt the council had kept them out of the process entirely. Several of these individuals spoke on the concept of many smaller shelters throughout the city as being preferable to one large shelter. In regards to the bed cap, the number had been raised from 150 to 210 since the last meeting, and the council voiced a clear intention to ensure there is adequate space for the number of potential guests. The phrase “we can always scale it down more easily than we could scale up” was echoed several times during this portion.
More testimony was given beyond the scope of just the number of beds there would be at the new location. Several members of the homeless community who are still in the shelter system also spoke. Several women spoke about the hardships of feeling trapped in the shelter system and feeling as if there is no escape. Two courageous women spoke about the prevalence of human trafficking in the homeless community. Jess Falero speaking with first-hand experience, and Suzanne Randall recounted a friend at the shelter who had died as a result. There was also immense outcry in regards to criminal trespassing orders being issued at the shelter. Current policy can result in a one year ban at the shelter’s discretion and many felt this played a large role in the bed count still being too low. Women from the Florence House shelter described their experience with the policy and remembered watching friends suffer frostbite in the winter. This aspect of the proposed shelter policy was not included in this part of the resolution up for a vote, and many hope it’s addressed in the future. Current providers also said they were looking for new solutions to the issue that would keep both staff and guests safe.
In the scope of this resolution, other statements were presented touching on the co-occurring addiction and mental health crises seen throughout the city. Many asked that the council moving forward consider ways to ensure more is done to address these two elements affecting the homeless population. The council agreed and remarked that Portland is part of ongoing lawsuits against the big pharmaceutical companies for their role in these issues. Others spoke about the lack of affordable rents in the city and the way they are leading to a rapidly rising homeless population. Several people also pointed out that properties like Bayside Village were a clear example of how people who did nothing wrong could still easily become homeless. This highlighted a recent point of contention with the planning board, with many present feeling that their recent decision to allow Port Property Management to repurpose the building was counterproductive for Portlands working class. The first agenda item still has yet to pass or fail as the vote was moved to December 16.
Adam and Jess meet with Councilwoman Ray for clarification the next day:
This morning Jess Falero and I spoke with councilwoman Belinda Ray for some clarification on the resolution for the shelter. She explained to us both how they intend to create a triage facility downtown in addition to the shelter that would facilitate directing individuals to the most appropriate facility for what they need. She added that a location wasn’t set yet, and ideally this could still be located somewhere on the peninsula. Where there are lots of resources throughout the city the facility would serve to reduce congestion at each location, as well as enable people to reach services in many other parts of the city. At the previous meeting on the issue, the council had indicated they were evaluating options to provide a means of transportation so day shelters and other services could still be accessed. Over coffee, we were able to discuss the goals of actually getting people housed long term, as well as other items that were mentioned the previous evening. She explained to us that many of these things are being assessed and will be addressed, but at different stages of the process. It was a relief to hear that the council did share many of the same goals as those present last night, and hopefully, regardless of how the vote goes in December, our city can continue to do all it can for the homeless population moving forward. With so many moving pieces in the matter, many must be curious how the vote will go as Portland will have 2 new council members and a new mayor at the next meeting.
Maine Immigrant Allies speaks on the growing I.C.E. presence in Portland:
There were only a few people presenting any testimony on non-agenda items before the council heard speakers on the climate resolution. One person spoke on behalf of Maine Immigrant Allies, presenting several policy suggestions to the council that had been read two weeks earlier. Recently Greyhound and Concord Coach lines have been allowing I.C.E. and Border Patrol to board busses and check riders for ID and papers. The ACLU in Maine has been actively working to stop this from being permitted as it violates the human and civil rights of all persons on the bus. Countless amendments to our constitution are violated when searches like this occur and those who have spoken out against it have asked the council to take a stance against the practice. Likewise, the council was reminded again that many Portland residents are not happy about the new Monument Square facility and the suggested policy items would be a good step towards their satisfaction. The group has echoed repeatedly over the past month that nobody should have to live in fear, and they wish for their immigrant neighbors to be treated with equality and compassion.
Many groups give environmental testimony on the proposed climate resolution:
The climate resolution did, in fact, pass with a unanimous vote as many expected given the support at the previous health and human services committee meeting. Representatives from several organizations in the area all gave as much testimony as was heard regarding the shelter. Representatives from Maine Youth Strikes and Maine Youth Climate Action joined adults from groups like Sunrise Movement, 350 Maine, and Extinction Rebellion in speaking on the issues that concerned them most. Some spoke about the projections from the previous committee meeting where it was shown that by 2100 much of Portland would be underwater if no action is taken. Others spoke about the impact of fossil fuels and greenhouse gasses and the gravity of what it will take to actually transition to renewable energy. Some made suggestions as it pertains to electric cars, potentially utilizing more electric trains to reduce highway traffic, and even pointed out that Portland could to address the amount of pollution created by the cruise ships that visit our city in the summer.
Among the individuals speaking on the climate issues at this and the previous meeting, the proposed NECEC corridor through western Maine was mentioned several times. We heard how the Canadian company using hydroelectricity for the power wasn’t all that clean, and results in mercury contamination of groundwater sources. The project is being done against the wishes of several indigenous tribes whose land is required for it, and many groups present were seeking to support their opposition to it. Recent findings have shown that there are plenty of alternatives to generate this power without the pollution, but at this point to stop the project it will take a successful referendum vote. It was also added that where this is a merchant line, it is being created for profit, and not specifically for the purpose of transitioning parts of Maine to renewable energy. The corridor itself would primarily serve Massachusettes, and create additional environmental issues instead of solving existing ones. A sentiment echoed repeatedly was that the solution to the many environmental issues we as a society face must come before corporate profit, and that the process must be transparent to the public so residents can stay informed and have input moving forward.
Other people spoke on things like the implementation of 5g technology and the risks not just to people’s health, but the air, land, and water. Contributing to the climate discussion, it was added that science shows radiation levels will increase exponentially with 5g, and steps were suggested that the council could take to prevent this secondary issue before it starts. Where a local company recently received a large investment to install the upgrade, many residents are as concerned about this as they are about fossil fuels. It was suggested the council consider an urgency resolution that would prevent the installation of these towers in downtown and residential areas until further testing is completed. Water justice was another issue mentioned several times in these meetings adding that corporations like Nestle and Poland Springs are also negatively impacting communities in Maine, and the ecosystem as a whole.
The youth in Portland quickly became vocal in regard to environmental issues in the past few months. This was echoed last night as many young people remarked how they felt like they were fighting for their future. Likewise, it was repeated many times that as difficult as it sounds, everyone present believed we could meet the goals we have if we all work together. By collaborating within the city, and within the region as a whole, we can truly empower ourselves to do things we thought were impossible. On both sides of the room, everyone thanked the youth for their dedication to this cause and pressuring the council to act. Councilman Thibodeau remarked how impressive it was that people who can’t even vote still had the courage to attend the meeting and demand change. The youth were present in both Portland and Brunswick last night in tandem, and this speaks volumes to how organized they are.
The council also hears testimony on facial recognition software:
The last big agenda item for the evening also had the vote postponed to a later date. Councilman Ali and Batson had introduced a policy that would ban the use of facial recognition technology in the city. Though local NBC news reports are stating the technology is already in effect, the council last night said it was not. The sentiments given last night indicated that the council did, in fact, support the bill blocking the technology, but wanted their new colleagues to weigh in. Councilman Ali explained to those present how technology has proven very effective in identifying caucasian males, but women, children, and minorities are often misidentified. Several people from the public offered comments remarking ways this addition would violate the fourth and fifth amendment rights of everyone living in the city. Where law enforcement must have reasonable suspicion of a crime to require someone to present ID, facial recognition would allow them to get around this rule. The council appeared to not wish to delay the vote very long, but it is unclear if that is an indicator of the decision they will ultimately make.
Overall it was quite an emotional night with many people giving moving and heartfelt testimony. Though it was abundantly clear that ample issues face the residents of our city, it was equally apparent that Portland is quickly coming together as a community to fix them. With people speaking from a wide array of ages, races, communities, groups, neighborhoods, and professions it was clear the determination Portland has to come out ahead in the long run. Two of these items still have yet to be voted on, so we all will wait and see how they turn out next month. Even if the amount of time in last night’s meeting was tiring for those in attendance, they all should be very proud. Many of the things people said took courage, and until recently it was unseen to have so many groups assisting each other in a fluid fashion to elevate the community as a whole. I’m sure we all hope the council will vote in a way that is best for the city pertaining to many of the big current local issues. However, what has ultimately convinced me that these issues will be solved is the persistence and dedication of my neighbors here in Portland. If we all keep working together and remember the importance of compassion in our decisions as a city, we could easily set an example for other places in the country.