A person holds on to the hood of their sweatshirt as wind gusts pick up outside Portland City Hall on Tuesday. City employees tried to get as many people as they could to seek shelter because of the wind and rain expected from the remnants of Hurricane Isaias. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Portland city employees worked during the day Tuesday with dozens of people who have been encamped at City Hall to connect them with temporary shelter and other services, but most of the protesters who have been staying at the site appeared to be hunkering down as the remnants of Hurricane Isaias began bringing high winds and heavy rain to Maine Tuesday night.

It was the first time city staffers have worked directly with the people who have been camping outside City Hall to raise concerns over a lack of housing and other services, such as substance use and mental health counseling, in Maine’s largest city. At least two dozen people remained there Tuesday.

The engagement came one day after Mayor Kate Snyder and the city’s Health and Human Services staff held their first meeting with protest organizer Jess Falero, and the City Council talked at length about the need to address the many public health and safety issues associated with the encampment. The incoming storm added urgency to those discussions and highlighted the need for action.

“(There’s) an effort to transition people from City Hall plaza, working with the city and others,” Snyder said. “The city manager certainly recognizing the importance of reopening City Hall. I think he got a lot of support from the council there.”

Volunteers and residents at the encampment at City Hall Plaza try to secure tents in heavy rain and strong winds late Tuesday. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

City Hall has been closed for more than a week because the staff is concerned about safety and unsanitary conditions. City Manager Jon Jennings has estimated that the closure is costing the city $275,000 a week in lost revenue from vehicle registrations, excise taxes and other fees.

Falero told a reporter Monday that organizers plan to turn the encampment’s medical tent into a mobile service. Snyder said Falero told her they were also working on filling backpacks with other supplies and working with city staff and others to find safe shelter for the campers.

“When I spoke with Jess yesterday afternoon, they were very conscious of the incoming hurricane and talked about the transition from City Hall that is needed and being planned,” Snyder said.

While the crowd at the encampment was smaller Tuesday, many people remained and prepared to ride out the storm.

City employees Sara Fleurant and Mike Guthrie talk with people who are staying at the encampment outside City Hall on Tuesday, in anticipation of the storm’s arrival. Fleurant said they convinced quite a few people to seek shelter elsewhere Tuesday night. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

People at the encampment were on edge as the storm approached and skies darkened. When a reporter arrived, a topless woman was arguing with other women, who were trying to chase her out of the camp. One of the women repeatedly punched the topless woman. A man tried to step in and break up the fight, but another man came out of nowhere and began to punch him, getting him to the ground and kicking him. The police eventually arrived and took a statement from the victims.

Others were busy preparing for the storm, trying to secure tents. Volunteers put up tarps around the food tent and packed up medical supplies.

But Falero, who uses the nonbinary gender designations they/them, said the conversation with the mayor did not result in any agreement to break down the encampment.

“Conversations with the mayor are good, but we’ll be here throughout the night. We’re currently preparing for the storm,” they said. “There’s nothing concrete they have right now to offer people – nothing that would actually service the needs folks have.”

City employees tried to persuade people who have no access to shelter to stay at either the Oxford Street Shelter or a temporary shelter that has been set up at the Portland Expo during the coronavirus pandemic, Snyder said. Both shelters are open 24 hours a day, with access to three meals a day, showers, restrooms and other services, she said, but they are only half full. Anyone who has been issued a criminal trespass order preventing them from entering either shelter will be sent to a hotel, she said.

The city has put up more than 150 people in local hotels, the costs for which are being covered by the state during the pandemic.

Volunteers and residents at the homeless encampment at City Hall Plaza try to secure tents as the tropical storm arrives. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

Icesis Stanwood, 23, said she has been staying at the encampment for the past few days. She said she became homeless two years ago, when she relapsed with alcohol and lost custody of her young daughter, and came to Portland from Hollis.

“I had nowhere else to go,” Stanwood said. She said she’s been introduced to harder drugs at the encampment and experienced violence at the encampment. “People need to be made aware of the violence down that goes on down here. It’s ridiculous.”

Stanwood was eventually connected with city shelter staff, who warned campers about the impending storm and encouraged them to enter either the city shelter or be placed in a hotel room.

Shelter Director Sara Fleurant and Assistant Director Mike Guthrie made their way to Stanwood’s tent, spoke to her for several minutes and made a phone call. They declined to speak specifically about whether Stanwood agreed to the city’s offer, but Fleurant said the city had been able to help about a dozen people find shelter.

“We have gotten a lot of people into the shelter or into a hotel,” Fleurant said. “Our goal is to get people to access shelter. We’ll be out here as long as we can be.”

Councilors on Monday raised the issue of using the Cross Insurance Arena as a temporary shelter with day services, but such a move would need to be approved by the Cumberland County commissioners.

Byron Saavedra, left, and John, who would not give last name, erect a tarp over tents at City Hall Plaza on Tuesday evening. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

Snyder said Tuesday that the city was working to address the concerns over sanitation at the encampment, the incoming storm, and the lack of mask wearing and social distancing outside City Hall. But she’s also working with organizers about ways to address a series of demands issued by the group.

“By working together my hope is that we can not only resolve things in the short term, but move forward in a way that feels productive and persistent,” Snyder said.

Protesters have demanded that the city take immediate steps to decriminalize camping on public property, open overdose prevention sites, freeze all evictions, create more affordable housing led by affected groups, defund the police and put that money into social service programs.

Snyder said the city could examine its prohibition on outdoor camping, but no one on the City Council has expressed an interest in doing that.

The council’s Health & Human Services and Public Safety has taken up overdose prevention sites in the past and could revisit the issue, Snyder said. Protesters could advocate for less funding for police and more investments in social services during the council’s budget deliberations beginning Wednesday, but housing creation is a complex, long-term proposition.

However, she said the city could not freeze evictions – only the state can.

Several dozen people are spending each night at the camp, and as many as 200 people come to the site each day for the meals, clothing, basic medical care and other assistance that volunteers have been providing. The demonstration began July 22 with a few tents, but the camp has grown steadily. Tents pitched on the sidewalk now wrap around short stretches of Chestnut and Myrtle streets on both sides of City Hall.

One tent is blown over from the wind on Myrtle Street outside Portland City Hall on Tuesday. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Until Tuesday, outreach to protesters was being done exclusively by community partners, while city workers were focusing more on the crowds gathered at Deering Oaks park. HHS Director Kristin Dow said city staff would go to the encampment Tuesday, after being questioned by City Councilor Kim Cook about why they were not onsite.

An 18-year-old camper, who would only give their name as Temper, said they planned to remain at the encampment throughout the storm, even though they just received housing after a year of homelessness. They said they became homeless when they came out as transgender at the age of 12.

“Hotels are a short-term fix to a long-term problem,” they said. “We’re here, and we’re not leaving.”

Falero said she was concerned about the safety of the campers, but they said most of them had weathered storms before.

“They all know what they’re about to deal with,” they said. “Otherwise, if they weren’t here, they would be down in Deering Oaks or in front of a doorway, and would be woken up and sent right back out, so at least here they can sleep.”

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