May 20—AUBURN — Police and crews from the Public Works Department leveled at least five homeless encampments this week in the area of Bonney Park and Moulton Field in Auburn.
Whether this is positive step or a terrible one depends on whom you ask.
For the homeless who live in tents and other shelters in the area near the Little Androscoggin River, it feels like just another attack — and at a time when proper housing is increasingly difficult to find.
For city officials, the move was, in part, a response to increasing crime in and around Bonney Park, including high-profile attacks on homeless people in the area.
City officials said the move to clear homeless camps is also a matter of public health. Assistant City Manager Brian Wood said the city takes pains every spring to clean up areas occupied by the homeless, providing as much notice as possible that it is coming.
"With regards to homeless encampments," Wood said, "the city has long-standing agreements with several estates throughout the city, and has an obligation to keep publicly owned property safe for everyone. Safety includes those experiencing homelessness.
"Every spring, Public Works and the Auburn Police Department locate encampments throughout the city, often along waterways, railroads and in wooded areas that have appeared throughout the winter or spring. Signs are posted 72 hours notifying those that are there to collect anything that you would like to keep to ensure personal and important items can be retrieved. After that, these encampments are removed and cleaned."
Wood said the city does not simply shoo the homeless away, and that plans are in place to provide help where needed.
"The city acknowledges that simply cleaning encampments is not enough," Wood said, "which is why the city has invested in two new outreach positions that work with those experiencing addiction, homelessness, job insecurity and other challenges, to connect them with resources, nonprofits and state-funded programs."
Additionally, Wood said, the city is part of several regional efforts aimed at providing economic and housing opportunities.
"The city of Auburn, like municipalities large and small across the country, has individuals experiencing homelessness for a number of reasons," Wood said. "The latest housing crunch across the country — that is particularly acute in Auburn — has only made it more challenging for resources, such as general assistance and other programs, to help support individuals as they transition into a permanent housing situation.
"Rents have increased so dramatically and housing is so scarce that General Assistance vouchers can't keep up with the cost of rent."
In spite of all that, advocates for the homeless said they were distressed to hear about the razing of the camps, and particularly in the midst of a move to get a 24-hour shelter located in Lewiston.
Megan Parks, a homeless advocate and one of the key proponents behind the proposed L/A Transitional Resource Center, said she was surprised that such extreme measures were taken at a time when so many efforts are underway to help the homeless.
"I was very concerned and disappointed when I heard about this," she said. "Auburn's Public Health, Social Services, and Economic Development departments have been great to work with regarding addressing homelessness in Lewiston/Auburn, and I know their staff have a deep understanding of the complexities involved so this came as quite a surprise to me.
"There are better, more humane ways to address the concerns Auburn is trying to address," Parks said. "The community is coming together to help the folks who were displaced, and we will keep doing what we do, advocating for basic human rights for all of our community's citizens."
Auburn Mayor Jason Levesque said the upheaval at the homeless encampment is yet another sign that the housing crisis must be combated locally. And the sooner the better.
"This is another reminder," the mayor said, "that we need to continue to execute policy that will grow our housing stock and continue to help those experiencing unwanted homelessness find solutions, while still balancing the health and welfare of all our citizens that use these public spaces."
By Thursday afternoon, the homeless who had been living in those encampments were scrambling to find a place to go. One man said he understood that police were responding to attacks on the homeless. But tearing down their camps, he said, made it feel like the victims were being targeted, not the perpetrators.
Toby Boutilier said he was awakened Wednesday morning and told crews were coming in to tear down the camps. Minutes later, an excavator was on the site and his entire campsite was razed.
Some have been living in the area for nearly a year. Some have jobs but cannot find housing. As of Thursday, several were faced with the chore of finding someplace to sleep and store their possessions.
But city officials said social workers have visited the site several times in recent weeks and that notices have been posted, advising those who live in the encampments a cleanup would soon be underway.
Police have not commented on the matter of the homeless encampments being taken down, but they had been increasing patrols in the area in recent weeks due to violence and other problems there.
The recent notoriety of the Bonney Park and Moulton Field community has not helped matters. Some claim the area is rampant with youth gang activity, which contributes to some of the violence in the area.
In late March, a video emerged on social media showing a homeless couple being beaten and terrorized by a group of juveniles. The video went viral, and as police investigated the assault, they arrested three teenagers on charges of aggravated assault and conspiracy to commit aggravated assault.
In the wake of that attack, the Auburn community rallied around the homeless, organizing events to round up donations for those who live in camps in the area.
Last week, police announced they would increase patrols in the area after a fight involving several young adults ended with two people assaulted at Moulton Field in Auburn. Two men were charged with aggravated assault.
Meanwhile, the future of homeless sheltering in the area remains in question. Contention over a low-barrier shelter in Lewiston proposed earlier in the year culminated in a six-month moratorium approved by the Lewiston City Council in mid-April. By that point, Lewiston Mayor Carl Sheline had already formed a committee to "advise and make recommendations to the City Council on homelessness, shelters and the range of housing options necessary to reduce homelessness in Lewiston."
The team behind the proposed 24-bed resource center has argued the city needs a low-barrier shelter that also offers a range of services to help transition people out of homelessness. The city's private shelters have a range of rules that keep people away, and none is open during the day.
Proponents say such a shelter could be of value to those people who have been forced to live outside in Auburn.
News of the situation at the homeless encampment spread Thursday on social media, where it was discussed vigorously throughout the day.
Some viewed city officials as bullies, targeting the homeless during difficult times. Others supported the move, while still others acknowledged the complexities of the issue.
"The problem is the homeless community are a combination of many different types of people," one man wrote on Facebook. "There are working people who can't afford housing in the area. If they move, they lose their jobs.
"There are mentally ill people who should be in group homes or institutionalized. There are addicts. It is a diverse group. There is no one solution to this."