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Tenters Disperse, Outreach Continues

picking up trash

Public works crews start the cleanup of the former encampment.

Photo: Lee Burnett

By Lee Burnett, Submissions Editor

Mental health outreach workers continue to be in touch with people uprooted by the closure of a large tent encampment in the Mill Yard this week, City Manager Steven Buck told the Sanford City Council this week.

Dozens of people were uprooted by the long-announced closure that began Monday morning. Some 22 people accepted offers of assistance through the resource hub at Central Park. That includes temporary housing at the emergency shelter in Alfred or a clinical detoxification treatment center. Others accepted vouchers for apartments managed by Sanford Housing Authority. Still others choose to couch surf with friends or found a willing property owner to host them on their land.

Buck told councilors that trust-building and persuasion efforts will continue as long as unhoused people remain in the community.

“Know that this is a constant effort of engagement,” he said. “Until they choose to take resources, those efforts will continue.”

Tenters can store belongings for up to 30 days at a secure shipping container parked at the Sanford Police Department, which is accessible to them around the clock. All but 10 tenters had departed by 7 am Monday when Sanford Public Works employees arrived with dump trucks, front-end loaders, skid steers and a mini excavator. The road through the area, known as Heritage Crossing, was cordoned off.

The cleanup crew was greeted by piles of trash seven feet high, spent needles, propane tanks, abandoned tents and human waste.

“I challenge anyone who walks through that site … to tell me any human being should have been left in that situation,” said Buck, who was one of several city officials who visited the site Monday morning. “It’s truly shocking.”

The crews removed nine truckloads of trash. “It went as smoothly as it could,” said Major Matthew Gagne of the Sanford Police Department. “It’s always difficult because you know you’re displacing people.”

It’s not cleaned up yet. In July, a biohazard remediation company will arrive to remove spent needles and other health hazards. Some were strewn about the woods, others accumulated in 20-gallon containers and five-gallon buckets. “There were needles everywhere,” Buck said.

Sanford’s efforts at moving people out of the large encampment drew praise from Meaghan Gean-Gendron, executive director of York County Shelter Program, which runs the emergency shelter in Alfred. She said a task force of allied agencies has been meeting for months to plan short and long-term strategies for developing housing and preventing homelessness while keeping individual needs at the forefront.

“I feel like it’s very unique and special,” she said.

The site of the tent encampment is being developed into a 30-unit apartment building, built around the “housing first” model allowing homeless people a base of stability and services to rebuild their lives.

The first step toward that end occurred April 4, when the City of Sanford assumed ownership of encampment property through the tax foreclosure process after the prior owner failed to pay taxes for two years. The city is now working with the Sanford Housing Authority to prepare a proposal for funding from Maine Housing. The Housing Authority is developing concept architectural plans while securing financing and a developer. “They’ve done everything ahead of schedule,” Gean said.

Wednesday at Central Park, 44 people ate limited meals provided by It Takes a Village 207, a mother-daughter team from Steep Falls that organizes volunteers and charitable donations on behalf of homeless veterans. They have been providing meals weekly for more than a year in Sanford, but the loss of a single location will make serving meals more difficult, said Becky Jackson.

“Starting next week, we have no clue where we’re going to meet them,” Jackson wrote in an email. “We have promised all of them, even if we have to drive around for three hours.”

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