The ACLU of Maine condemns the ongoing and forcible displacement of unhoused residents in Portland, particularly when shelters may not be truly accessible.
PORTLAND – The American Civil Liberties Union of Maine condemns the City of Portland’s forcible displacement today of unhoused residents under the false promise that shelter space is accessible and meets people’s needs. The sweeps come just ten days after Portland City Council passed a resolution condemning the action by a 7-2 vote. Despite growing momentum for humane and constitutional approaches to homelessness by Portland’s elected councilors, city officials are again turning to punishment and criminalization as they enforce a city-wide camping ban that leaves unhoused people with no public space in which to exist.
Federal courts have ruled that cities can conduct punitive encampment sweeps only when there is practically available shelter space. The ACLU of Maine remains concerned that there are more unsheltered residents in Portland than practically available shelter beds as the city conducts sweeps.
Portland officials say the city’s Homeless Services Center (HSC) has open beds, but they may remain inaccessible to many. People may be unable to access the HSC for a variety of reasons: because they need disability accommodations; because of their gender identity; because they need the assistance of a service animal; or because the shelter’s strict hours prevent them from getting to and from work shifts, among other barriers.
Sweeps threaten rights guaranteed under the Fourth, Eighth, and Fourteenth Amendments of the United States Constitution and the Maine State Constitution. Medical and public health studies also show forcible displacement is always dangerous, increases mortality rates, and harms the health and safety of all residents – housed or not. The American Public Health Association recently adopted a formal policy statement declaring forced displacement “endanger[s] the health and well-being of people experiencing unsheltered homelessness and impair[s] access to safe, stable housing or shelter.”
“Portland cannot police and punish its way out of a housing crisis,” said ACLU of Maine Legal Fellow Heather Zimmerman. “These sweeps are cruel and a waste of taxpayer dollars – and a complete policy failure. After the city and state conducted repeated sweeps over the past several months, hundreds of people remain left outdoors and forced to survive on the streets. City officials and police have only forced people to move from one place to another while destroying their property and putting them in harm's way.”
“Despite growing opposition to violent sweeps among elected representatives, city officials are continuing to spend taxpayer dollars harassing, displacing, and disappearing unhoused residents. Instead, our leaders should invest those dollars in addressing the root causes of homelessness: the city’s affordable housing crisis, and a lack of access to health care, jobs, and education,” added Zimmerman. “City officials are actively embracing the idea that you must have money in your pocket simply to exist in Portland.”