PORTLAND, Maine — Police Officer Daniel Knight bent down and gingerly lifted a large, blue can half-covered in a paper bag from between the legs of a man sleeping against an outer wall of the soup kitchen that serves as a hub for the hard-luck community of Portland’s West Bayside neighborhood.
It was nearing noon Wednesday and the sleeping man awoke with grumbled protest at the sight of the officer emptying the remaining half of his 8 percent alcohol “Natty Daddy” into the gutter.
Letting the man off with a warning, Knight turned to one of his drinking buddies and said, “Paul, you’ve got an apartment now, right? You don’t need to be down here.”
“But I don’t have friends,” replied Paul Charette, who was homeless until recently. “I gotta come down here to make friends.”
As Portland moves to improve conditions in West Bayside, Charette’s return to the neighborhood illustrates the difficulty of making permanent change in an area of the city that has long offered community for some of its most troubled residents — where the streets and sidewalks are scattered with people in desperate need of help, and sometimes strewn with drug paraphernalia and soaked in bodily fluids.
Over the past 15 years, as shelters in other parts of the city have closed, populations of homeless people and those suffering from addiction have become increasingly concentrated in the 2½-block stretch between the Preble Street Center and the Oxford Street Shelter.
But the area is also home to families, many of them recent immigrants, whose children walk to school through the neighborhood. And developments are planned nearby, which puts “more pressure on the city to rein in the activities that are going on” in West Bayside, according to Steve Hirshon, president of the Bayside Neighborhood Association.
Now, Portland is trying to address some of the neighborhood’s problems with a new program, even as some question whether its plan will only scratch the surface.
In the initiative, called “Operation Bayside Boost,” the city is upping efforts to inform those living on the streets of available services, increasing police patrols and drug and alcohol busts, illuminating parts of the neighborhood with new LED streetlights and deploying more street sweepers and crews of people employed through the municipal workfare program to pick up trash.
Hirshon said he appreciates the city’s commitment to improving things for people in West Bayside, but warned that issues affecting the neighborhood are deep rooted.
“Everyone has been a bit slow to recognize how intractable the situation has become,” he said.
Knight, who has spent the last decade as Bayside’s community officer, told BDN Portland that the lighting should make non-homeless residents feel safer and he hopes to see modest improvements. But he worries that the gradual concentration of social issues in Bayside has made them harder to address.
“There are too many different problems down here for them to be solved,” said Knight, listing off homelessness, addiction, alcoholism, mental and physical illness and pure bad luck. “You’ve got every problem imaginable in one spot and I don’t think [the concentration] solves a whole lot of them, you just bring them together.”
This concentration of services in West Bayside is an unintended result of the closure of homeless shelters and service centers in different parts of the city. In the last 15 years, shelters run by Catholic Charities, the Salvation Army, YWCA, Youth Alternatives, Ingraham and Maine Adoption Placement Services have closed or been converted to other uses.
A couple of these facilities were taken over by other social service organizations, but the closures have led to a net loss of shelter beds, according to Preble Street Executive Director Mark Swann. And in recent years, Portland’s homeless population has swelled as the city tries to shoulder some of the burden left by Gov. Paul LePage’s slashes to state reimbursement for local General Assistance spending.
“I am certain that high on their list of reasons [for closing] — if not the very top — would be lack of funding,” said Swann of the shuttered shelters. “There simply is no sustainable, sizable source of government funding to operate homeless shelters.”
As one of the cities with the most robust services in Maine, refugees, itinerants and people struggling with addiction often come to Portland from smaller towns where services are harder to come by. And many of them land in Bayside.
To handle the growth in homeless population, the Oxford Street Shelter has gradually transitioned from beds to cots and finally to mats on the floor, according to Swann, who has been working with the city’s homeless since 1991. The city-run shelter now has a capacity of 154, but every night Preble Street Resource Center opens a room and lets people who couldn’t fit in the shelter sleep on the floor, Swann said.
Hirshon argued that the gathering of people struggling with drugs and alcohol in Bayside actually makes it harder for them to sober up, despite the availability of social services.
“When you have so many people who have that lifestyle there every day, that’s not a place to go to get clean,” he said.
The plight of people in Bayside has gotten worse in recent years, according to Oxford Street Director Rob Parritt. Cuts to state funding have slimmed the population eligible for housing services and covered under MaineCare. Meanwhile, the opiate epidemic has deepened.
Despite this, Parritt is optimistic — “In my line of work you kinda have to be,” he said — and his optimism extends to Operation Bayside Boost. Although it may take a few years, he expects the initiatives to make real improvements in the neighborhood, and is especially excited about the potential of the new, brighter street lighting.
“The LED lights are going to be huge for us because we do 24-hour service,” said Parritt. “If we can actually see people and find people that’ll discourage people from being where they shouldn’t be.”
But he also thinks that cuts to state programs aimed at helping the needy, such as MaineCare, pose a problem. “The issue is folks just not having [health] insurance and us not being able to address the root cause that causes people to use,” he said.
And after 28 years with the Portland Police Department, Knight also is doubtful that change would come quickly to West Bayside.
He worries that Paul Charette, the man who said he was back in Bayside to make friends, may be among those pulled down by the neighborhood. In his 50s, Charette needs a walker to get around, and has had run-ins with the law over the years on charges of drinking in public.
He recently got an apartment on Cumberland Avenue, but Knight said the police already have gotten calls about him passed out in the lobby. Knight doubts that Charette has the support he needs to get sober and keep a roof over his head.
“He doesn’t stand a chance,” said Knight. “My gut instinct is that he will be evicted before Christmas.”