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Tenters Appear Unmoved by Looming Closure

Robert Pelkey, left, and Alex ponder

Robert Pelkey, left, and Alex ponder the closure threat at Heritage Crossing.

Photo: Lee Burnett

By Lee Burnett

An air of anxiety pervaded the tent encampment in the mill yard this week, just days before Saturday’s deadline to vacate.

“It’s certainly frustrating. There’s not a single one of us who knows where we are going to go to next,” Alex, a former commercial truck driver who declined to give his last name, said of those tenting in the woods bordering the Mousam River. “They’ve told us if we’re not out [by June 15], they’re going to start arresting us.”

An estimated 30-50 people live in increasingly risky conditions in the mill yard. Trash lies everywhere. Rats prowl at night. Drug use, fights and thefts are part of the deal.

“It’s not easy living out here,” Alex said. “But it’s not the worst.”

The city is pulling out the stops to warn residents of impending closure. Notices have been posted. Outreach workers visit regularly. Housing navigators, mental health outreach workers, and others are on hand to provide referrals and case management for various agencies.

City officials say they are acting to protect people from worsening sanitation conditions. Mayor Becky Brink told city councilors last week that “the city finds the site to be a public health hazard due to accumulated waste that is now entering the Mousam River.” City Manager Steve Buck told councilors that “willingness to accept services continues to be an impediment.”

The Sanford Springvale News visited the encampment Wednesday morning and found residents going about daily life with no urgency to move.

Robert Pelkey said he visits the encampment daily to help maintain morale. He sleeps in a camper parked at a friend’s house and comes around to pick up trash, including needles and lend a sympathetic ear. “I try to keep people in a positive spirit,” he said.

Pelkey and others say housing is what’s needed, and it’s just not available. A temporary warming center at the former Lafayette School, which had nightly provided meals and zero-gravity chairs for 40 or more people, closed May 1. “They keep spouting that we have options, but we don’t,” said Alex.

The encampment site in the mill yard was recently acquired by the City of Sanford through tax foreclosure. The city is working with the Sanford Housing Authority to develop it into anapartment building for unhoused people trying to rebuild their lives around a foundation of stability. That could take years. In the meantime, encampment residents say the city should work to manage homeless people in one location.

“Keep the encampment where it is. We all get along with the cops,” said Karl Brown, a disabled veteran who said he lived at local cemeteries before landing at the Heritage Crossing encampment. “Now that [the site] is owned by the city, there’s no reason not to improve it,” he said. He envisions a managed campground with dumpsters, portable toilets, showers, laundry, and a charging station. “A semi-supervised place. Police could come in anytime. We have nothing to hide.”

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