Portlanders came to city council chambers this evening with an agenda: to tell real life stories about the problems of drug addiction, mental illness and homelessness in the city and in their own families.
Numerous tragic stories came from business owners on Congress Street and from service providers who keep loosing their funding sources and ability to provide the basics to this population year after year – and most particularly under the two LePage administrations.
Following comments by at least fifty (50), the city council was stunned and unprepared to respond when invited to by Mayor Ethan Strimling who facilitated the meeting – it took a minute or more for councilors to recover from the dramatic presentations before they could respond.
The Mayor in his introductory remarks said he wasn’t looking for blame and finger pointing, but was looking for solutions to the issues. Perhaps it was a misplaced challenge to ask for solutions from the people experiencing the issues rather than the councilors elected to solve the issues confronting Portland. The two hours spent at city hall were largely time spent venting pent up frustration with little in the way of solutions.
The meeting was set in response to an incident at Sisters Gourmet Deli earlier this month in which employees were subjected to a long tirade by a man who may have needed mental health services.
Years ago the State of Maine decided to “deinstitutionalize” its mental health patients. It was part of a national movement to empty mental health hospitals of its patients. It was billed as an opportunity to give people a chance at better and fuller lives outside of institutions. The hospitals were closed down. But, the real reason for the policy was to save the State money.
As a stakeholder, I attended a number of task force meetings in Augusta on the deinstitutionalization of mental health patients. I heard the Dr. hired specifically to direct the process tell the task force that it would never be possible for Maine to adequately fund the out-patient services required. The safety net will not be adequate. Consequently, there would be deaths and other tragedies with this population he told us. “Just don’t ever tell the press I said that,” he joked to the group of 15 or so of which I was a stakeholder.
In cold and measured responses, one councilor responded to this crises while another said nothing. One said this is not new. But it is new. There is an opiod crises that has hit Maine especially hard and deaths continue at an unabated rate. That’s new. Maybe Councilors are not aware of it, though. Maybe it is reflected in the increase in the number of calls for disorderly conduct to the Portland Police Department in Bayside at last count. The Council is too busy running far, far away from the crises to avoid it. They are too busy developing property to increase the tax base to hear the pleas for help from this vulnerable population.
Following the two-hour meeting, Thomas Grant of Simply Scandinavian on Temple Street said: “The big thing we have to remember is these are humans and we need to help them get well.”
The usually long-winded conservative Councilor Nicholas Mavadones said he’s affected daily by the problem at his waterfront job. Someone somewhere should form a coalition to do something or other that is unclear; but that was as far as his solution went. Is he willing to organize it? Take ownership of it? Make a commitment to see it through? He was not as long-winded as he normally is.
Politicians helped to create the problem. They need to find the solutions rather than “pass the buck.” The city needs an agenda to assist the most vulnerable among us.