La Vida Local: Irregular Notes on West End Life
What’s Wrong with Camping?
By Rosanne Graef
Homelessness is not new in Maine and working toward a resolution has been ongoing for centuries.
Much of the approach taken here began with the Poor Laws of England and Wales which originated in Elizabethan times. Actions taken included physical punishment, outdoor relief (passing out food, clothing, and other necessities), local collection of poor taxes to help the poor, and workhouses, among others. Over time these efforts became more and more centralized, ultimately evolving into the modern British welfare system.
Meanwhile, here in Maine…
In Maine, the 1821 pauper laws continued those of Massachusetts that were in effect before Maine’s statehood. These established criteria for a person’s being legally settled in a town, thereby obligating the town to provide relief, if necessary. Such relief could be outdoor or indoor (almshouse or town farm). A system of local overseers of the poor could indenture minor children and adults, as well as pay a farmer or other resident to adopt a minor or provide room and board for a child or adult.
As with many endeavors, some worked extremely well and others failed abysmally. Decades of reform led to new approaches for the those unable to work, those with mental illness, veterans, and those facing other challenges such as financial collapse, family break-up, or substance abuse. The pendulum swung between large residential institutions, community-based care, involuntary commitment, social work approaches, pharmacological solutions, laissez-faire, passing the buck, and out-of-sight, out-of-mind.
Homelessness in 2020
Here we are in 2020 with scores of homeless people in Portland, a pandemic, and extraordinary financial strain at all levels of government and in the private sector as well. All this and an opioid epidemic, lack of affordable housing, paucity of mental health services, and a highly charged adversarial political atmosphere to boot.
A recent encampment on City Hall Plaza protested the lack of affordable housing. The City, in turn, widely publicized that there are indeed shelter openings in different facilities, as well as hotel rooms being rented for those in need.
For years there have been campers in various parts of Portland, some who aren’t allowed at a shelter, as well as some who choose and prefer that outdoor environment. Just as there are housed people who are introverts or who want to avoid crowds, potential conflicts, or restrictions, that choice to camp could be the best option for some people’s emotional and physical well-being.
However, this isn’t possible in Portland now. Camping on public property is illegal and those who camp on private property can anticipate having their set-up dismantled and have the constant stress of being unsure of the security of their person and possessions.
Camping in public parks is not the answer, but what’s wrong with establishing a sanctioned camping area with facilities for personal hygiene, safety, waste disposal, etc.? The recent City Hall encampment organized itself in several productive ways that could be emulated.
Not everyone wants to live as such, but for those individuals who would choose to do so, making it legal, available, more orderly, and safe could improve their well-being when they’re in a place that’s comfortable for them.
Rosanne Graef lives in the West End and is a volunteer contributor. Readers may reach her by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.