Lawmakers will take up bills to increase shelter funding, but won't ban encampment sweeps

Nov. 16—Legislative leaders agreed Thursday to take up additional bills during the upcoming session aimed at tackling the growing homelessness crisis, including proposals to increase funding for shelter operations.

But leaders unanimously rejected an appeal from a Bangor lawmaker looking to prohibit municipalities from sweeping encampments.

The 10-member Legislative Council — which includes the presiding officers of the House and Senate and leaders of both parties — decides which bills qualify as emergencies and can be introduced when lawmakers reconvene for a second session in January. The council met Thursday to hear appeals from lawmakers whose bills were rejected last week.

Members reversed course Thursday and approved two bills that would increase operational funding for emergency shelters and another bill that would make it more difficult for large municipalities to block the creation of homeless shelters.

The text of the bills still needs to be drafted and go through the legislative process. Any bill calling for funding also must survive the appropriations process in which successful legislation competes for limited funds.

So far, the council has admitted more than 90 emergency bills for the next session on top of the more than 300 bills carried over from the previous session. More bill requests are pending, including at least seven submitted in response to last month's mass shooting in Lewiston.

The council heard appeals Thursday on about 100 bills voted down last week. Several were aimed at addressing the growing number of homeless people who are staying outside in tents or makeshift shelters.

Portland has experienced the largest surge in homeless encampments, which have been periodically cleared by the city or state after officials cited unsafe and unsanitary conditions for the occupants and the public. But encampments are taking root and growing in other towns and cities as well, including Bangor, Waterville, Lewiston and Sanford.

Service providers and advocates for people who are homeless and unsheltered have been pressuring municipal officials to stop clearing homeless encampments, saying such sweeps are ineffective, cause additional trauma to residents and make it more difficult to connect people with needed services.

Portland's City Council will consider a proposal Monday to temporarily suspend the city's camping ban and effectively end encampment sweeps.

At the State House Thursday, Rep. Ambureen Rana, D-Bangor, appealed the council's denial of her bill to prohibit municipalities from clearing encampments, a practice that she said is intended to "hide this issue."

"Sweeps are very expensive and ineffective in addressing homelessness," Rana said. "They only make the situation worse."

But the council denied her appeal unanimously.

House Speaker Rachel Talbot Ross, D-Portland, said she shared Rana's concerns, but said "I'm not sure right now this is the right direction. I want to work with you on helping to address it, as it is a crisis and an emergency."

The council did admit other bills addressing homelessness, including a bill sponsored by Rep. Anne-Marie Mastraccio, D-Sanford, to increase state funding for emergency shelters from $2.5 million, where it's been for the last decade, to $12.5 million.

"All of our homeless shelters are operating at deficits," Mastraccio said, noting that operating costs and the number of people in need are both increasing. "There are at least five shelters in our state in danger of closing."

Mastraccio explained how homelessness had exploded in Sanford. In 2017, the city identified about 11 homeless people, but has seen the number increase to 62 in 2021, 107 in 2022, and 175 so far in 2023.

And these aren't people with mental health or substance use issues, she said.

"Most of these people are not those we saw back in 2017 that caused us to form our mental health unit along with our police department," she said. "They are economically unhoused. They have jobs. They're living in their cars."

She said the numbers also do not include asylum seekers from other countries, some of whom also need shelter.

'A CRISIS FOR EVERYONE'

As of Oct. 17, Mastraccio said, homeless people in Sanford include three children under 10, seven people 11-20, 37 people in their 20s, 40 people in their 30s, 45 people in their 40s, 25 people in their 50s, 15 people in their 60s and three people in their 70s.

"This is a crisis, not just for York County, it is a crisis for everyone," she said.

The council also approved a bill sponsored by Rep. Colleen Madigan, D-Waterville, that would increase funding for low-barrier shelters in the state, which accept people who are actively using substances. Such shelters need more staff and training, and therefore more funding, she said.

"Without this funding specifically for low-barrier shelters, they are in danger of closing their doors," Madigan said. "This bill addresses a true, current emergency. This bill crucially offers a path forward for sustainable funding for the future, not just a Band-Aid for this year."

The third bill related to homelessness that was admitted by the council is sponsored by Rep. Grayson Lookner, D-Portland, and would prohibit municipalities from temporarily prohibiting homeless shelters. Lookner said his bill would only affect communities with more than 30,000 people.

The bill appears to be aimed at Lewiston, which adopted a moratorium on new shelters. Lewiston is one of only three communities with more than 30,000 people. The others are Portland and Bangor.

"Homelessness is a statewide problem and for us to solve it, it is vital that neighbors help neighbors," Lookner said. "When certain large municipalities in Maine pass moratoria on building shelters it unfairly burdens other municipalities to do more than their fair share to alleviate the statewide crisis."