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BELFAST, Maine — Leather boots. Milk jugs. Fast-food wrappers and pizza boxes. Soda bottles and Sterno cans. Clothes strewn about in heaps. Graffiti on trees. A bedraggled stuffed animal facedown in the dirt.
And at least three graffiti-tagged tents, full of trash and covered in tarps — but still standing upright.
That’s the derelict campsite a mushroom hunter discovered recently on private property next to the Stephenson Preserve in Belfast.
Belfast Police Chief Mike McFadden blames the site on a grassroots effort this summer by concerned citizens to give camping gear to people who needed temporary shelter.
“Where are all these tents coming from? We didn’t have this issue last year,” he said while standing on the side of City Point Road, close to the wooded hillside where the campsite was found. “There’s a property owner in Belfast who is going to have to do an incredible amount of work because someone thought it was a good idea to give people tents.”
McFadden believes the campsite was erected by a group of young people who often panhandled downtown this summer. They were armed with cardboard signs asking for money, and McFadden said he saw some of those signs left behind at the campsite. Neighbors who live close to the site reportedly had seen the same group walking to and from the campsite.
The chief said the people, in their 20s, may have come from Bangor, which made an effort earlier this year to clear out homeless camps and connect those occupants with city services. He reasoned the group moved on from the campsite when the weather grew colder and said he does not expect they will return to clean it up.
“For [those] people, homelessness, it’s a lifestyle,” he said. “They stayed because Maine in the summertime on the coast is a nice place to have a vacation. Now they’re off to a warmer climate, and they didn’t take their tents with them.”
But Belfast City Councilor Mike Hurley doesn’t agree with the chief’s assessment, and he said it’s unclear if the tents given to needy people this summer were the ones abandoned on the hillside.
“When I look at this, I see mental illness, or multi-generational drug abuse, poverty, lack of an education, lack of support,” he said. “They were living in a trash dump.”
Allison Harrell of the Waldo County Homelessness Coalition helps collect camping gear to distribute to people in need.
“We do not direct individuals to set up camp in publicly owned spaces or without permission,” she said in a written statement. “Tents and camping supplies distributed by the [coalition] are intended to provide temporary and urgent help” to people who face housing insecurity.
Additionally, Belfast City Manager Joe Slocum said the city spends about $65,000 a year on the needs of people who qualify for various types of aid. That includes some financial assistance for necessities such as food, heat, electricity and rent.
Belfast also provides information for area homeless shelters, none of which are located in Waldo County, and the names of landlords who may have places to rent. But finding shelter for people can be a daunting task in a region that seems to be in a perpetual affordable housing crisis, and so at times this summer, a city employee also handed out camping gear to those who needed it.
Still, Hurley wants the city to organize a clean up to help the landowner of the trashed campsite. Hurley and McFadden agree that cleaning up the mess would be a disgusting task.
“I don’t even want to duck my head inside the tent, much less pick all that stuff up and lug it down the mountain,” McFadden said. “I really wish that when someone decides that they want to address a societal problem, they use all their resources, and don’t just strike out on their own. There’s an old saying, and it’s true: no good deed goes unpunished.”