Maine Voices: Myths serve as tool to scapegoat homeless, poor people

PORTLAND — Not a single day goes by without someone asking me about, or complaining to me about "people from away." There is a solidly entrenched, pervasive myth that poor and homeless people from all over America are flocking to Portland because we’re "too generous."

This perception has been the subject of discussions among business groups, neighborhood meetings and even in the mayoral race.

Preble Street has usually steered clear of these discussions because, frankly, if a human being comes to our doors saying they’re hungry and they need food, or they’re homeless and need a roof over their head, or they’re scared and alone and need someone to talk to, we’re not going to ask for a Maine state ID before we welcome them, feed them, or offer them unconditional support. That is our job; that is our mission.

But, given the emotion and even anger around this issue, we feel compelled to weigh in.

Every urban area in the country is struggling with increased homelessness and hunger. Every one. The job market, the housing market, the economy in general is stretching the capacity of homeless shelters and soup kitchens to the very limit. And every one of those urban areas has the same mythology that Portland has.

"Community leaders" in Burlington, Vt., say that their shelters are full of people from Boston. Boston blames New York. Asheville, N.C., points the finger at Charlottesville, Va. And so on, and on and on.

For more than 20 years, I’ve been doing this work and have had countless conversations with people running shelters in other parts of the country. Every single one — every one — has to battle this same myth in their city.

And when I ask my colleagues from other states if they know of homeless people moving to Maine, they invariably laugh. And then ask, "Maine? Why would a homeless person move to Maine? It’s cold up there!"

That is not to say we never see people in our shelters from other states. Of course we do. Our businesses, our schools, our neighborhoods, our Legislature, our churches, are also full of people from away. Nearly all of them come to Maine because of a personal connection, an educational opportunity, or the promise of some kind of job — the same reasons anyone moves from one state to another. None of them comes here for the long lines at a soup kitchen or the crowded mats at a shelter.

And for those whose opportunities don’t pan out, whose jobs evaporate or whose families fall apart, make no mistake about it: Life on the streets of Portland is not attractive by any reasonable measures.

The biggest shelter in Portland, the Oxford Street Shelter, averages 180 people each night, sleeping on mats on the floor, inches away from strangers. Last month, 95 people in Portland shelters were homeless for the first time in their lives.

I strongly suspect that most people who characterize our community as "too generous" have never been to a shelter and would be absolutely appalled at the conditions there. It looks like a refugee camp, not a dorm. Not a group home. Rooms full of masses of people who have nothing, the majority of whom are seriously ill, frail and vulnerable.

Sadly, it is all too often the instinct to target the stranger, the outsider. But we need to stop perpetuating falsehoods and scapegoating people who are already shamed, already exposed, already demeaned and misunderstood.

Any one of us who has a meal, and a safe place to sleep tonight, must fight the urge to accuse and malign. Instead, we have to find a way to offer solace and refuge, and banish myths that diminish our humanity.

Rather than criticizing the municipal and faith-based and nonprofit agencies and the thousands of volunteers who work tirelessly to alleviate the suffering around them, let us instead join them in recognizing each person — whether part of our family, our city, our state, our country, or the world — as our brother or sister.

— Special to The Press Herald