Lewiston and Auburn pursuing emergency warming shelters

Jan. 18—LEWISTON — Organizations in Lewiston and Auburn are looking to secure funding to operate overnight warming centers, potentially providing two options for homeless individuals to spend winter nights indoors.

In Lewiston, officials from Community Concepts and the Immigrant Resource Center of Maine are seeking funding from Androscoggin County government toward a program at Calvary United Methodist Church on Sabattus Street. The church already offers a soup kitchen and has run a warming center during daytime hours on Sundays, Mondays and Tuesdays.

Bill Reed, a church board trustee, said that if funding is approved by the county Wednesday night, they are hoping to be up and running later this week, as winter storms are forecasted to arrive. The shelter would be open from 12 a.m. to 8 a.m., seven days a week, providing shelter for more than 50 people during the coldest hours.

In Auburn, city officials announced Tuesday the city is applying for funding now available through MaineHousing for overnight warming shelters. The $21 million in funding statewide comes through L.D. 3, the $473 million emergency energy relief bill passed this month.

During a City Council meeting Tuesday, City Manager Phil Crowell said if the application is successful, a warming center would be opened on city-owned property at 121 Mill St., providing daytime shelter for 65 individuals and overnight shelter for 30. Crowell said the state funding is meant for short-term overnight facilities, with the shelter only open through April.

Mayor Jason Levesque said he planned to call a special meeting if and when the city's application is approved. He said the location was already vetted in prior weeks, and believes the state will work quickly on applications "given where we are in the season."

Both proposals in the Twin Cities come as municipalities across the state have struggled to find ways to respond to the homelessness crisis.

An earlier effort between both cities and Androscoggin County government to create a shelter village of modular units was scrapped after the parties could not agree on a funding breakdown. The county had allocated $520,000 toward the proposal. Auburn has also received public pressure to update its zoning ordinances, which don't allow overnight emergency shelters, while Lewiston has strengthened its rules against overnight camping.

Reed said so far this winter, the city councils in both Lewiston and Auburn had "decided it's not their problem," but said he's "amazed" that officials are now stepping up.

The funding request for the Calvary United Methodist Church shelter is nearly $300,000, which would be administered by Community Concepts. CEO Jim Martin said the organization would be providing oversight for the shelter — much like it did for previous emergency shelters at the Lewiston Armory and Ramada Hotel — but said it would be supporting the work of the church and the Immigrant Resource Center of Maine, which will provide some staff and services.

The church in years past has opened as a warming center on Sundays when other local options to stay warm are closed.

Martin said the work to collaborate on an overnight shelter started as a result of conversations led by Mayor Carl Sheline, who he said "brought stakeholders together" in December.

Sheline said Wednesday the organizations involved "are longstanding committed community organizations and I am grateful for their willingness to come together to provide assistance to our unhoused population this winter. Lewiston is really fortunate to have local community leaders who have a passion for their mission and just want to help."

Both cities' programs intend to provide "wraparound services" alongside other organizations, working to secure permanent housing for shelter guests. Auburn said it would be seeking $250,000 from the state funding.

Greg Payne, Gov. Janet Mills' senior housing policy adviser, told the Portland Press Herald this week the state funding will help provide emergency shelter to people at risk of becoming unhoused as the federal Emergency Rental Assistance program comes to an end, and will also support other more permanent solutions across Maine.

According to Glen Holmes, director of business and community development, Auburn will coordinate its project using existing staff in his department.

"We will temporarily move staff to the project site and work with other service providers to have staffing in place," he said, adding that they will also have on-site security "24-7."