PORTLAND (AP) – The deaths of three homeless men in the space of a month are drawing attention to the problem of homelessness in Portland.

The body of Lewiston resident Charles Mason, 50, was found in Portland Harbor Saturday morning.

Portland Police Chief Michael Chitwood said an autopsy Monday revealed nothing to indicate the death was suspicious, but did show Mason had serious health problems, possibly linked to a history of alcohol abuse.

The bodies of John Cook, 51, and Thomas Cook, 52, were found in bushes near city streets this month.

City officials said homelessness in Portland is becoming an increasingly severe problem, with record numbers showing up at the city shelter.

Some leaders want to require homeless people to make an effort to help themselves before they can use the shelter.

“When there’s no accountability at any level, there’s lower expectations,” said Gerald Cayer, director of Portland’s Health and Human Services Department, at a press conference with Chitwood Monday morning.

Cayer asked at what point authorities should take a stronger, “tough love” approach with long-term shelter residents.

He and his staff tried last fall to require new shelter arrivals to meet with a counselor and discuss ways to find permanent housing. The effort was canceled after advocates and city councilors objected, he said.

The issue is being revisited because the city’s homeless population continues to grow. But advocates said requiring people to participate in services may drive them away from safety and the basic needs of food, shelter and health care.

“We don’t need more people sleeping outside and dying outside,” said Chip Land, who was once homeless and is now a consumer advocate with the Preble Street Resource Center, which runs a soup kitchen, a daytime drop in center and hosts a city-run health clinic.

The city’s 154-bed Oxford Street shelter has had to rely on its emergency overflow plan for the past month and a half, with as many as 185 people seeking shelter.

“We are just being overwhelmed,” Cayer said. “People are falling through the cracks.”

He said expanding the shelter’s capacity is not the best way to deal with chronic homelessness.

“We could add another 100 beds to the system and I can guarantee we would be over capacity in a short time,” he said. “We need to find hooks to get people engaged.”

Steve Huston, a Preble Street outreach worker, said the city should provide basic needs to people until they are ready to help themselves.

The City Council’s Health and Human Services committee is likely to discuss the issue at its April 20 meeting, when it receives a report on use of the Oxford Street shelter.

AP-ES-03-30-04 0216EST

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