A security camera video of a man screaming at employees in a downtown Portland deli late last month has led to a community forum about how to deal with problems related to homelessness, mental illness and substance abuse.
Portland Mayor Ethan Strimling and members of the City Council will host the forum at 5 p.m. Wednesday in response to calls from downtown business owners, including the owner of Sisters Gourmet Deli.
“People are clearly passionate and frustrated by what we’re talking about,” Michaela McVetty, owner of Sisters Gourmet Deli, said in a statement issued the city. “The rise in population of those suffering from mental illness, drug addiction and homelessness has become something that none of us can ignore any longer.”
McVetty posted the deli’s security video of the confrontation on Facebook, and followed up with more posts and emails to fellow business owners calling for a citywide conversation and increased access to support services.
“There are so many in this city we love that are not getting the help they need. If they are taken care of properly, in return, downtown workers, residents and business owners can feel safer,” McVetty said.
McVetty began her push after 37-year-old Jesse James Taylor entered Sisters Gourmet Deli in Monument Square on a Saturday afternoon late last month and began ranting at the female staff. An employee notified Portland police, but the man continued to shout at and threaten the deli’s employees for about 10 minutes before he was coaxed out of the restaurant by a stranger shortly before police officers arrived.
Taylor was eventually charged with disorderly conduct and criminal mischief, in addition to interfering with constitutional rights because he allegedly made derogatory references about the sexual orientation of the female employees during his rant on July 29. He pleaded guilty to disorderly conduct and was sentenced to five days in jail.
McVetty, after consulting with her employees, posted the video of Taylor’s obscenity laced tirade on Facebook. It has been viewed by more than 74,600 people views. And McVetty has been using Facebook to keep pressure on city officials.
On Aug. 3, she posted interviews with both Strimling and City Manager Jon Jennings about city efforts to relieve pressure on the downtown, including the possibility of relocating the city’s primary homeless shelter. The videos were each viewed thousands of times.
McVetty returned to Facebook on Monday where to post a 3-minute video asking business owners and others to write letters expressing their concerns. She plans to present those letters to the city on Wednesday.
“I’ve been given a microphone and I am not giving it up,” she said in an interview. “All I know right now is we have a problem that is not being addressed.”
Mental illness, substance abuse and homelessness have been perennial issues in Maine’s largest city since the state began closing mental health institutions in the 1980s. That move put people with severe mental health issues on the street and many of those people came to Portland, which has reiterated its commitment to shelter anyone in need.
Portland’s tourism economy also has made the downtown a magnet for panhandlers, which McVetty and others say is contributing to the problems.
McVetty said she plans to raise the idea of installing kiosks for donations that would be used by social service agencies to help the poor and homeless, a strategy used in some cities to discourage panhandling and make sure donations are not used to support substance abuse.
Portland Downtown, a group of businesses and property owners, recently concluded a monthslong study about ways to address panhandling, which the nonprofit has said is becoming more aggressive.
The group ultimately decided against using kiosks to collect donations and sent a series of recommendations to city officials last month that included strengthening an existing ordinance that prohibits aggressive panhandling, educating people in need about resources available in the city and educating visitors about not giving money to panhandlers. The Downtown group also is working with two graduate students from the University of New England to collect data about the issues downtown businesses face.
That idea has been discussed before as the city and downtown merchants have sought to address concerns about panhandling.
The group also supports a new program launched by Portland that offers panhandlers the alternative of cleaning up parks and public spaces for the city’s minimum wage of $10.68 an hour.
Rob Parritt, who serves as director of the city-owned Oxford Street Shelter, said that while he does not have a solution for some of the problems downtown business owners are facing, educating them about the city services that are available might be the best option.
“A lot of people think that they can only call 911 (for help from the police department), but that is not always the case,” Parritt said. “We need to do a better job of educating people about the resources that are available.”
Parritt said anyone concerned about an individual who might be on drugs, intoxicated, homeless or in need of mental health counseling can contact several programs for assistance.
The Oxford Street shelter is available around the clock at 761-2072. Milestone Foundation’s HOME Team (Homeless Outreach and Mobile Engagement) can be contacted at 838-8904 and has a mobile van that can pick people up off the street who are in distress due to substance use, mental illness or homelessness.
Parritt said The Opportunity Alliance operates two programs that include a street level case management outreach program and a 24-hour mental health crisis prevention team that is available at 774-4357.
“It’s a community issue that we need to work together on,” Parritt said.
Mayor Strimling applauded McVetty for pushing the issue into the public spotlight.
“She has turned a scary situation into an opportunity for all of us to grow and learn,” Strimling said. “I look forward to hearing from more business owners and what they experience as we seek to find solutions to these issues in our city and state.”
Dennis Hoey can be contacted at 791-6365 or at: