LEWISTON — A committee tasked with advising city officials on housing issues said homelessness is the most urgent, and as winter approaches, a list of recommendations includes a public warming shelter, a mobile public bathroom and contracting with local hotels to provide short-term shelter.
The Housing Committee, formed out of a temporary committee on rental registration, presented the recommendations to elected officials Tuesday as colder weather arrives and advocates see the pandemic compounding hardships for the homeless.
The recommendations come following the city’s collaboration on an emergency wellness shelter this past summer at the Lewiston Armory, which was deemed a success, but did not address the region’s long-sought-after needs for a permanent public day shelter and a low-barrier overnight shelter.
Craig Saddlemire, committee chairman, said Wednesday that the group’s recommendations are arranged by “what is most in reach,” which includes a plan to develop a mobile public restroom and shower facility.
He said they are also “expecting movement” on the recommendation to establish a public day shelter, or warming shelter, which advocates have been discussing for years.
Saddlemire said Tuesday’s workshop with city officials is part of building support and “buy-in” from officials, but said he recognizes the committee has only an advisory role.
“I think staff understands and hopefully the council understands that these are realities we need to face, and (the committee has) offered the most direct solutions to them with the resources available,” he said.
He told the council that there are funding sources available as well as an organization willing to help establish a mobile public bathroom facility, which according to the committee, “is necessary both for basic hygiene and to keep all persons safe in the unique circumstances of the global pandemic, and should be vigorously pursued.”
The committee’s recommendation for housing homeless people in hotel rooms comes from a newer model established during the pandemic in an effort to minimize virus transmission. Saddlemire said Tuesday that hotel rooms could be used to provide shelter until permanent housing is secured, and that so far, research shows the structure and privacy of the situation “yields better results” in health and wellness and case management.
With colder temperatures approaching, the committee also said enhanced day shelter facilities are needed. With the Armory shelter no longer in operation, the committee said the city should conduct “an immediate assessment of existing city facilities, as well as nearby private facilities, to identify what space could adequately meet this need.”
Saddlemire said there’s a general recognition of the need for a permanent overnight shelter, but that the city has been “waiting for someone to come along to develop it.”
Homeless advocates have long said that Lewiston, the second-largest city in Maine, should have its own public shelter. Due to the pandemic, Saddlemire said those discussions might have a different outlook due to health protocols, but that the city should not “press the pause button” on talks.
Other recommendations include increasing case management, securing more transitional housing options, and mitigating evictions.
It was clear Tuesday that city officials have heard a lot this year from constituents regarding homelessness.
Mayor Mark Cayer said he’s heard more about homelessness this year than at any time before. And while Councilor Alicia Rea said she supports the Housing Committee recommendations, she said she heard several resident concerns this summer over activity near the Armory shelter, and that she expects there would be a good deal of opposition to any proposal for a permanent shelter in the city.
Saddlemire said there is always a tendency to try to “push away” the issue of homelessness, but that residents need to feel the urgency of the housing crisis. He told the council about a recent fire in a homeless encampment near his home on Bates Street, the remnants of which are still there.
“It’s already in our backyards,” he said. “If we don’t address it collectively, then they will solve the problem on their own in ways that are less safe.”
Rea said having a police detail for the duration of the Armory shelter’s 87-day run — at a cost of $179,500, paid by MaineHousing — should also play into future decisions.
Other officials said Lewiston needs to identify other regional partners to join the effort.
“It’s not just Lewiston,” Cayer said. “One way or another, we have to deal with this issue.”
City Administrator Denis D’Auteuil said Lewiston is “not going to address this alone,” but said officials will have to define how to make it a regional effort.
The Housing Committee is an 11-member committee charged with advising the City Council on issues like the quality and safety of the residential housing stock, expanding the diversity of housing options, and “providing safe and healthy housing alternatives for current and future residents of every socioeconomic status.”
According to a council memo, the committee reviewed council priorities and compiled a list of housing issues to address. Through a ranking survey, “they identified homelessness as both the most urgent issue facing our community and the issue which if addressed would have the most impact on the community,” the memo states.