Ashish Shrestha (left) and Katie Junkert of Amistad prepare to hand out meals at the corner of Oxford and Elm Streets in Portland on Tuesday afternoon. Amistad, a peer supported recovery center, is helping distribute food at various drop spots around the city after the closure of the Preble Street soup kitchen due to coronavirus concerns. City officials told Preble Street that the organization must apply for a permit to deliver food in parks, sidewalks and other public spaces.  Credit: Troy R. Bennett | BDN

PORTLAND, Maine — Advocates for the homeless organized a protest on the decline of social services in Portland on Wednesday night, preparing to sleep into the night on the steps of City Hall. It comes after city officials told social workers here they need to “cease and desist” a new mobile soup kitchen that’s distributing food to vulnerable populations at multiple sites throughout the city during the pandemic.

Portland officials notified Preble Street, a nonprofit that provides services to low-income and homeless adults, that it must obtain a permit to deliver food directly to people in parks, on sidewalks and other public spaces. The letter came from the city’s Parks and Facilities director and included the city manager, but it was not a legal document.

The new “street outreach collaborative” replaced the agency’s on-site “to-go” meals service last week in an effort to keep large crowds from gathering outside its Bayside neighborhood center on Oxford Street, and to allow the agency to better deliver outreach-style casework to people who need services.

Preble Street Director Mark Swann was surprised by the pushback, saying he had “every reason to believe” the city supported the agency’s mobile efforts to feed people during the pandemic.

The order has effectively stopped Preble Street from delivering food at Deering Oaks Park, where the city says it has received a number of complaints about trash and safety conditions since the agency started delivering food there.

On Tuesday, someone filed an anonymous complaint through a city-sponsored app called SeeClickFix that “a literal pile of people and belongings” was obstructing a sidewalk nearby. The report was assigned to police.

Katie Junkert of Amistad hands out meals at the corner of Oxford and Elm Streets in Portland on Tuesday afternoon. Amistad, a peer supported recovery center, is helping distribute food at various drop spots around the city after the closure of the Preble Street soup kitchen. Credit: Troy R. Bennett | BDN

A growing number of unsheltered people have set up an encampment in Deering Oaks Park, partly because they have been restricted from city shelters for medical or disciplinary reasons.

Swann said that Preble Street is not responsible for people sleeping in Deering Oaks Park, and his agency is just trying to support them.

“Long before Monday when we started up, there were dozens and dozens of people already sleeping in Deering Oaks,” Swann said. “That is why we went there.”

The city’s cease-and-desist letter applies to most public sites along Preble Street’s mobile food route — but for now, the agency continues to distribute food at other locations, such as Monument Square and the corner of Oxford and Elm streets.

City officials say the issue largely is a bureaucratic one that would be solved if the agency obtains a permit. But it’s driving a wedge between the city and social service providers on how best to care for people experiencing homelessness in Portland, a demographic that’s grown during the coronavirus pandemic and one that could worsen as eviction proceedings resume on Aug. 3.

Preble Street phased out its on-site soup kitchen and began instructing people who received meals at its Oxford Street location that it would switch to a mobile distribution program, making two daily stops at nine sites in the city, prior to the operation’s launch on July 13.

Swann said the agency was following guidance from the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in May that advised outreach workers and other community partners to “help ensure people sleeping outside have access to updated information about COVID-19 and access to services.”

Swann also cited the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development that advised social service agencies in March to launch mobile initiatives to meet vulnerable populations in parks, beaches and other public locations to prevent community spread of the virus.

People seeking services have had fewer reasons to congregate at Preble Street’s Bayside location. The organization wound down its resource center and erected a fence around its courtyard this spring to discourage community spread of COVID-19. It opened a temporary wellness shelter at University of Southern Maine’s Sullivan Gym to support the city’s unsheltered population during the pandemic, but that operation was dissolved last week as the university prepares for its school year. The agency still operates a quarantine shelter and several other sites where people receive services.

It has distributed more than 100,000 meals per month since the pandemic began, Swann said.

The city additionally operates three emergency shelters using CDC guidelines, including a temporary shelter at the Portland Exposition Building, where many have moved since the Sullivan Gym closed. In April, the city barred entry at Oxford Street Shelter to anyone outside a waiting list of 608 people who had most recently checked in. The city lodges roughly 200 people weekly at area motels.

Clients have access to beds and three meals a day at city shelters, but not everyone is eager to use them. It’s a dynamic that has contributed to the rise of people sleeping outside.

A stack of hot meals sits ready for distribution at the corner of Oxford and Elm Streets in Portland on Tuesday afternoon. Meals are being distributed at various drop spots around the city after the closure of the Preble Street soup kitchen. Credit: Troy R. Bennett | BDN

A community worker who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal said that many people who receive services have complained about city shelters’ lower quality of care, which involves less of a “social work-driven approach” than other agencies. 

The issue of homelessness is “multi-faceted and complex” especially during a pandemic, Swann said, adding that the agency is doing the best it can responding to “unprecedented demand” while trying to meet the city’s vulnerable populations where they are at.

“They’re still there [in Deering Oaks Park], and we’re not,” Swann said.

City officials and Preble Street staff said Wednesday they were working together toward a licensing agreement that would allow the shelter to distribute food to those in need.