The University of New England hosted a forum on homelessness Wednesday, where panelists discussed everything from Portland’s consideration of sanctioned encampments last fall to roadblocks in addressing the crisis.

The event was part of The President’s Forum, a series seeking to “allow difficult conversations in the spirit of respectful debate,” according to a news release. About 200 people attended, including Portland Mayor Mark Dion and the former mayor, Kate Snyder.

Portland city workers clear a large homeless encampment at Harbor View Park last month. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Courtni Jeffers, an assistant clinical professor of public health at UNE, moderated the panel, which included Danielle West, Portland’s city manager; Cullen Ryan, executive director of Community Housing of Maine; and Ali Lovejoy, vice president of mission advancement at Preble Street.

West and Ryan both argued for the effectiveness of encampment sweeps.

“Part of this is on us to insist that people deserve to be inside and come into housing,” said Ryan. He argued people are safer in shelter, even if they are still using drugs or struggling with mental health.

West emphasized that Portland’s sweeps ultimately led to hundreds of people moving indoors before the winter’s first major snowstorm and said there were no overdose deaths this January. That’s the first month the city went without an overdose death since April 2021.


West refers to the sweeps as “resolutions.” She said when it came time to clear the camp at Harbor View Memorial Park, she tried not to set a date for the clearing, but it didn’t work.

“I tried that and I didn’t see results,” she said. “In fact, what happened is there were some additional intakes but then it plateaued significantly.”

But Lovejoy, the third panelist, from Preble Street, argued that sweeps don’t always bring people inside. She talked about people losing important items during sweeps, disconnecting from service providers and increased drug use on sweep days.

“And sweeping is not resource neutral,” said Lovejoy, arguing that bringing in bulldozers and staff costs the city; money she says could be better spent on support services for homeless people. She also spoke about the criminalization of homeless people, like when they are arrested for drug use or petty theft in an effort to bring them inside. She said this practice does more harm than good.

West emphasized that there have been no arrests at Portland’s encampment clearings.

“No criminalization happened…we have staff on site, we provide significant notice, and significant outreach,” she said.


Panelists also discussed the biggest barriers they face in their respective fields to addressing homelessness. All three panelists cited funding and a lack of cohesion between service providers as major challenges.

West talked about the constantly shifting rates of General Assistance reimbursement the city can count on from the state. She also said a lack of transitional and permanent housing in the city is a major barrier.

Lovejoy said it can be difficult to find funding for innovative solutions that address substance abuse or mental health. Often, she said, funding goes to older models that aren’t as effective.

“Often we’re still trying to fit individuals into systems that are not designed or flexible enough to serve them,” she said.

At the end of the event, audience members were given an opportunity to ask questions. Someone asked what Portland’s plan is going forward to keep people indoors as the weather gets nicer. West said the city’s department of health and human services is grappling with that question now.

“Sometimes it comes down to having to make decisions for people who are unable to make decisions for themselves,” she said.

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