BIDDEFORD — Some civil libertarians have criticized the city’s treatment of a homeless woman whose garbage bags full of belongings were seized two weeks ago and who was arrested on a criminal trespass charge New Year’s night.
But Biddeford officials say concern for the woman’s welfare, as well as a need to maintain public order, have motivated their actions.
“We’ve been working very diligently to help her, but our hands have been tied,” Mayor Donna Dion said. “There’s nothing legally we can do to push her to seek out help.”
Police say Diane Fields is one of just two homeless people who live on the city’s streets year round. Fields, in her mid- to late 40s, lives on the sidewalks of Main and Washington in the downtown section.
For more than a year, police Officer Troy Cline has been trying to persuade Fields to move into a shelter or rent an apartment.
“If we could prove she’s a danger to herself or others, then we would have the authority to take her to the hospital for a psychological evaluation,” Cline said. “But in the past, she’s been shown to be competent in providing for herself.”
Said Dion: “She wants to be left alone. She’s bound and determined to live on the street.”
Fields has declined requests for interviews about her homelessness.
Advocates for the homeless say the case is troubling.
“Seizing personal possessions is one of the most extreme things a city can do to its homeless,” said Laurel Weir of the Washington, D.C.-based National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty. “For a city to take that step — it’s extremely rare.”
“They have no right to take the property or search a homeless person’s possessions,” said John Roberts of the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts. “There’s just no way you can do that.”
Just before Christmas, 15 business owners sent a petition to the mayor’s office and Police Chief Roger Beaupre asking that the city do something about Fields.
“We don’t want to wake up and see a big headline in the morning newspaper announcing that a homeless woman died in Biddeford and nobody did anything about it,” said Vince Keely, a former mayoral candidate and owner of the Wonderbar Restaurant on Washington Street.
Keely also said there was unhappiness over Fields’ behavior.
“We just spent $465,000 on new lights for the downtown,” he said. “I’d like to see things cleaned up down here. Get her off the streets and into a shelter where she can get some help.”
A few days after the petition was sent, Fields left two bags on the front lawn of the old District Courthouse owned by the city and entered a coffee shop across the street.
City workers cleaning up construction debris on Washington Street were ordered by City Manager Bruce Benway to take Fields’ bags to the public works garage two miles away, where Fields could reclaim her bags.
Then, on New Year’s night, acting on a long-standing written request from a downtown property owner to keep Fields off a Main Street address, police arrested Fields on suspicion of trespassing.
Police Capt. Norman Gaudette said Fields first was warned once.
From the perspective of the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, people like Fields are being victimized.
“We’ve found that the trend towards criminalizing homelessness is increasing,” said Weir. “Police are essentially arresting homeless people for conducting life-sustaining activities in public that they can’t conduct anywhere else.”
Dion said the city hopes Fields will adopt a new attitude.
“The lady is her own guardian,” the mayor said. “We’re hoping she will break down and sign up for assistance. … In the meantime, she’s a danger to herself because she’s not taking care of herself.”