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USM students, alliance’s new chapter protest homeless policies

A crowd of students and activists gathered outside the Portland Housing Authority office at the corner of Forest Avenue and Baxter Boulevard Thursday to promote affordable housing and express displeasure at the city’s stance toward hotel development.4-26-housing-1
The new Portland chapter of Social Welfare Action Alliance participated, supporting Portland’s public spaces, including Congress Square, where developers this week floated plans to build an events center on part of the public space.
Members of the alliance joined students from the University of Southern Maine in a protest at the Portland Housing Authority on 14 Baxter Boulevard.
Crystal White, a first-year master’s student in the USM social work department, said many participants were students in A class on homelessness at USM, making the protest a culminating event.
“We’re kind of engrossing ourselves and learning more about what’s going on, on a local level, a state level and a national level, in terms of supporting housing options, getting more vouchers,” she said.
The protest did not target the Housing Authority but rather tried to raise awareness, White noted.
“We think it’s a great opportunity to get out there and support Portland Housing Authority,” she said.
In the social work department, bachelor’s degree and master’s level students studied the growth of homelessness and challenges with reducing the numbers of homeless, White said.
The protest included a swipe at the latest plan from RockBridge Capital, new developer of the historic Eastland Park Hotel, with a proposal to build an events center in part of Congress Square. Rockbridge Capital’s plan calls for a 9,500-square-foot addition to the hotel, including a 5,000-square-foot event center, the developers told a city committee this week.
Thursday’s protest roped in the RockBridge Capital issue because Congress Square is symbolic of tension between hotel expansion and public space, White said.
“Part of what ties that in with homelessness is that Portland keeps supporting these new hotels coming in ... but affordable housing is not something that is on the priority (list),” White said.
David Wagner, professor of social work and sociology at USM, joined the students and said he personally agrees that the city focuses too much on hotels and not enough on the homeless.
“We have something like 550 officially as homeless people, but that’s the tip of the iceberg as someone who writes about homelessness, it’s probably four times that. And then as the lines at the Housing Authority about 10 days ago show, we have hundreds and thousands of more people who can’t afford the housing they have. They’re potentially at risk of homelessness as well,” he said.
Wagner said he witnesses students who can’t afford a place to live.
“We have students who are homeless, absolutely. And some of them are young and do live with others, but for various reasons others can’t and there are older students,” many forced to live out in East Deering or Westbrook if they’re able to secure affordable housing, Wagner said.

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