Who has a panhandling problem?

January 25, 2017

Bradley Thurston, Jessie Muldoon, Marie Elizabeth, Dylan Monahan and Pete Franzen write on a local business initiative that will make life worse for the homeless.

WINTER IS in full swing in Maine, making the challenges of poverty and homelessness worse, and sometimes deadly. Rising housing costs, high costs of heating oil and an opioid drug crisis are compounding an already difficult situation for many of Maine's homeless and housing insecure.

But rather than expanding health care, housing, and food bank and soup kitchen services, Portland's liberals and business community are worried about the way panhandling and homelessness "looks" to the tourists who fuel Maine's economy.

Recently, Portland Downtown, a nonprofit association of business owners and "stakeholders," held a preliminary, ad-hoc meeting to discuss a solution to "panhandling issue" in the state's largest city. The meeting, held January 9, addressed the following, according to the association:

Portland Downtown recognizes that there is an issue, in its districts, of persons panhandling on sidewalks, near buildings, and in parks. The primary issue is that it makes residents, workers, and tourists feel unsafe. This is well documented in tourist reviews, surveys conducted by the organization to business owners, and testimonials given by those who live, work, and visit throughout the district.

A homeless man stands at an intersection in Portland, Maine
A homeless man stands at an intersection in Portland, Maine

About 10 Portland residents, many of whom regularly access services at the city shelter several blocks away, picketed outside Portland Downtown's office with hastily made cardboard signs that read: "Hey, brother can you spare a dime? Homelessness is not a crime!" and "Don't be snobs, give us jobs!" They leafleted passersby with flyers that read: "We have the right to Panhandle. We are not a danger to anyone; we are simply asking for help. Getting rid of panhandling does not get rid of homelessness."

PORTLAND IS often hailed as Maine's progressive hub, with a mayor and City Council entirely comprised of Democrats. But this reputation stands in stark contrast to the lived experience of the city's most vulnerable communities. As the city prepares for out-of-state investors to construct multimillion-dollar condo units, the homeless and extremely poor are being pushed to the margins.

The problem for the members of Portland Downtown isn't that there are people living through winter in Maine who don't have shelter or consistent access to food or clean water, but that they make the tourists uncomfortable.

Portland Mayor Ethan Strimling has a history of appealing to the left and has stated he is unwilling to make panhandling illegal. Strimling said the only way to solve the problem is to address the root causes of homelessness by "ensuring that mental health and substance abuse services are available to those who need it, and making sure there are jobs and housing available to people in need."

As recently as 2012-13, however, the Portland City Council made an effort to ban panhandling from median strips on city streets. The ban was cloaked in safety concerns--that people in the median strips could be hit by cars or cause such distractions that drivers might get into car accidents.

But activists, advocacy groups and the homeless themselves saw this move for what it was: a way to drive the visible proof of poverty and inequality further into the margins.

At first, the ban passed and was set to go into law, but the ACLU took up the case. It challenged the constitutionality of the law on the basis of violating free speech. The City Council, trapped by its own rationale that the ban was a response to safety concerns, had to admit that people using the medians for political purposes would also be in violation. This was obviously not the City Council's intent, and the ACLU was successful in getting the law overturned.

That victory didn't, of course, address the root causes of poverty and homelessness in Portland.

Portland has a thriving tourist industry and arts community, and it has recently seen an explosion of development. With that, has come the displacement of low-income renters and further marginalization and criminalization of the poor.

Meanwhile, Mayor Strimling's stated support for the poor and homeless comes less than a year after the City Manager and City Council decided to close the India Street Public Health Center.

The clinic served more than 1,000 patients on an annual budget of $1.4 million, with about half of the money coming from state and federal grants. After the 2014 closure of Health Care for the Homeless, the India Street clinic became a critical resource for refugees, people living in shelters, and all poor and working class folks seeking health care.

Despite Strimling's statement that "a city can and should be judged by the way we treat the most vulnerable among us," he and the City Council agreed in April 2016 to close the clinic by June 2017, transferring all services to a local nonprofit which is already straining under a heavy patient load.

But just months after the decision to close India Street, the city of Portland unveiled Operation Bayside Boost, which included increased police patrols and $1.2 million devoted to "tree-scape and lighting upgrades" in a neighborhood housing city shelters and low-income housing.

IT'S CLEAR that despite Strimling's purported commitment to addressing the root cause of homelessness, he is more willing to spend money on police and "neighborhood improvement" than maintaining basic services for the city's poorest citizens.

Residents and social service workers in Bayside have long observed police harassment and brutality. One young woman was thrown so roughly into the back of a police van in the spring of 2016 that she required an ER visit to get stitches the next day. The Portland police arrest log from the last week of 2016 reveals extensive arrests made in Bayside, with on charges of "obstructing government administration" or "criminal mischief."

Homeless shelters in the Bayside neighborhood, run by at least five agencies, have been closed or converted over the past 15 years, making it harder than ever for people to find help. Other shelters in Portland are literally overflowing, with dozens sleeping in chairs in the offices that are used as emergency overflow spaces. The city's only youth shelter must hold a daily lottery to decide who will be given a bed each night.

This crisis extends beyond those on the raw edge of homelessness and touches all poor and working-class people. Residents who were raised in the city can't afford rent, and those with vouchers for rental assistance face discriminatory rejections. In Portland, there were over 100 no-cause evictions in the first six months of 2016.

In the face of this many-sided housing crisis, Strimling vowed to take "bold and decisive action." But in the end, after hours of testimony and advocacy by residents and a newly formed Coalition for Housing Justice, the Democratic City Council passed only a lukewarm series of "recommendations."

City officials provided no additional housing--and no justice.

A look through Portland's recent history shows that the Democrats are fair-weather friends at best for the vast majority of citizens. Portland needs an independent movement that is willing to fight for all members of the working class, not only those who can afford Portland's rising rents.

There is no starker illustration of the barbarism of capitalism and the necessity of organizing a socialist alternative than homelessness in the middle of a development boom. For Portland's poor, the profitability of local business, tourism, and investments are more important that the right of people to ask for spare change.

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