Apr. 28—LEWISTON — The woman hunched on the bus stop bench was 23 years old, though she looked older. On that warm Thursday afternoon two weeks ago, she was sitting at the center of the bench with her legs tucked beneath her. As we watched, the young woman began nodding off, her head slumping low and her body falling off to one side. A burning cigarette was nearing its end between her limp fingers
Lewiston Police Sgt. Tyler Michaud pulled his cruiser to the side of Oak Street, stepped out and approached her.
"You're not in trouble," the sergeant said as the young lady snapped awake. "I just want to make sure you're OK."
The woman considered him with glazed eyes.
"Do you need help?" Sgt. Michaud asked her again.
The woman blinked a few times, considered some more and then offered a wan smile.
"No," she said. "I'm OK."
Michaud asked her a few questions with limited success. The woman said she was homeless, but gave vague information about recently leaving a shelter. The sergeant told the woman about some services that might be available to her but she was indifferent. She just wanted to sit there a bit longer in the warm sunshine.
After a minute more, the officer said goodbye.
The woman was not committing any crimes, Michaud noted. She was not bothering anybody. He had offered the help that was available and that was that. The next move would be hers.
As the head of the Lewiston Police Department's three-man Criminal Reduction Unit, Michaud's job that day, like most days, was to offer help to those in need and to take care of small problems before they became big ones.
Should he have pressed the woman on the bench a little harder to get her off the street? Should he have moved her along or maybe even arrested her?
These days, it depends largely on who you ask. Opinions on how the homeless should be handled are all over the place and it seems that no two opinions are alike.
"Everybody has a line," Michaud says.
But where is that line? Ask around and you'll find people who think the homeless should be shuffled off the streets as soon as they start loitering and leaving trash around.
Others believe the homeless should be tolerated, but only until they start interfering with the quality of life of business owners and the people who live in the downtown area.
Still others say the homeless should be accommodated even further: How we treat the downtrodden, after all, says a lot about a society. Most homeless people are victims of hard circumstances and no effort should be spared to help them, they say.
Police are in the unhappy position of trying to cater to all those points of views. With complaints of loitering and trespassing up by 21 percent since 2020 — there were more than 3,000 nuisance calls in 2022 alone — people are demanding that the police do something — and that they do it exactly the "right" way.
Tumult over proposed homeless shelters in Lewiston has turned the matter into a political football. Recent news stories about police tearing down some homeless encampments on private property have led some to believe that the department has declared an all-out warm on the unhoused.
"They think we're lining up in the street every day at 5 o'clock in the morning and just kicking people out," say Lewiston police Lt. Derrick St. Laurent. "That's not realistic at all."
More often than not, says St. Laurent, the officers are spending most of their time simply checking up on the homeless and offering them help.
And there IS help out there.
Under a new initiative called "Neighborhoods First," Lewiston police have begun teaming up with mental health workers in an effort to better respond to calls involving the homeless. One of those workers is Bernie Burrell, a licensed social worker with the Tri-County Mental Health Services program "Project Support You."
How does it work? The project literature explains it this way: "PSY is a unique ride-along partnership between the Lewiston Police Department and Tri-County Mental Health Services. An officer and counselor respond to calls from individuals living with and struggling with substance misuse, homelessness and mental illness. PSY ensures people get help when and where they need it. Since PSY began, the program has saved lives by reducing repeat overdose incidents. It has reduced visits to emergency departments and has encouraged family members, landlords and bystanders to contact PSY to help others in need."
A few days each week, Burrell will walk a downtown foot beat with police Officer Ryan Gagnon, who patrols the Lisbon Street area, Kennedy Park and other areas where the homeless tend to congregate. Burrell carries Narcan with her in case of overdoses on the street, but mainly she carries knowledge — knowledge of the systems and programs that are in place to help those who are homeless, addicted to drugs or alcohol, or down and out for other reasons.
By now, pretty much everybody on Gagnon's beat — homeless or otherwise — knows Burrell by name.
At about 10 a.m. on that Thursday morning, Burrell and Gagnon are walking down Lisbon Street, heading toward the Public Library. All around, people are stirring on the streets, many of them hoisting grungy backpacks or garbage bags filled with clothes and other items. The streets do not teem with the homeless, but they are there.
Burrell and Gagnon have been doing this long enough that they have fallen into a kind of rhythm with the homeless. They know where they will be at any given time of day.
"Right now, they're waking up from wherever they slept last night," Gagnon says. "Some go to the library, some go to Kennedy Park."
Burrell nods at this and adds that many of the homeless will be making their way to Trinity Jubilee Center on nearby Bates Street where food will be served at 11 a.m.
Inside the library, a handful of homeless men are seated at booths along the windows that face Lisbon Street. One is languidly poking at a tablet screen. Another is eating something out of a can while another man just gazes out at the street, his face expressionless.
The men have a few personal items stacked around them, but there are no big packs, no sleeping bags or carts among them; not since the library cracked down on those items.
"They had to do that for sanitary reasons," Gagnon says. "It's important that others who use the library still feel welcomed here."
The library is still a popular spot for the homeless. Some days, Burrell and Gagnon will find them lined up outside the library's doors, waiting for it to open. The ban on bags and carts, though, has created an intractable problem for some of them.
"There's one man who used to come in with a lot of stuff," Gagnon says. "But he told me a couple days ago that he won't be coming in anymore because he has no place to put all of his stuff. He didn't want to leave his property out and about, and we can't allow people to start leaving it all on the sidewalks, either."
As soon as she's inside the library, Burrell gets to work. She spots one homeless man from a previous encounter and checks in with him. Did he keep the appointment she helped him make the last time they met? Did he need any further information?
She approaches another man, one she has not met before.
"I'm not a cop," she tells him at once. Within a few seconds, they are having a comfortable conversation and the man seems interested in what Burrell is telling him. I'll see this more and more as the morning stretches on toward noon. Burrell has an easy way of talking to people. She doesn't preach to them. She doesn't condescend or scold. By and large, the homeless she encounters seem to trust her.
And Burrell has encountered a lot since she started working with the LPD.
"People should know that if they see a homeless person, somebody who appears to be in distress, chances are good that our PSY worker has engaged with that person, and probably on numerous occasions," says Lt. St. Laurent. "We have offered them help and may be in the process of getting them help."
Burrell will tell the people she talks to about available shelters, about help they can get for substance abuse, and about various places that serve food to the homeless. She will ask if they presently have a caseworker and if so, with what agency?
The homeless will usually listen to a spiel from a police officer or mental health worker. That doesn't mean they'll always take it.
Sgt. Michaud finds that out as he patrols a different part of the downtown. On Walnut Street, he came across a woman named Jess, who was hanging out in front of Poirier's Market. Again, Michaud pulls his cruiser to the curb.
"Hey," he yells to Jess. "Did you follow up with Project Support You like we talked about?"
Days earlier, Michaud had introduced the 35-year-old Jess to Burrell in hopes of getting her the help that she needs. But now, Jess just shrugs and looks awkwardly away.
"We can put all of these resources right in front of them," Michaud says as he pulls away. "But we can't make them take it."
Back at the library, Burrell is talking to another homeless person, offering up those same resources and stating her case. The homeless man in question looks interested, but it's impossible to tell if he'll take her up on any of it. Burrell doesn't mind. She'll just keep trying.
"Sometimes they'll talk with me, sometimes they'll decline any of the services, but I'll keep poking the bear lightly," she says. "They'll get to know us. They'll know what we're about and how safe they can feel with us."
She and Gagnon make a slow journey through the library, moving from floor to floor to either snuff out problems or offer help, depending on the situation at hand.
They ultimately make their way to the children's floor, the scene of recent complaints. But a librarian there says that things in the neighborhood have actually started improving since Gagnon and Burrell began making their rounds.
"I'd say that recently, like the last few weeks, it's been really good," he says. "It just seems cleaner. There's a lot less stuff like hypodermic needles on the ground."
One library user on the children's floor, a woman named Mary Ann, admits that the Lisbon Street area where Gagnon and Burrell patrol has improved immensely over recent months. But, she insists, the homeless problem is still a serious issue in other parts of the downtown.
"It's become like a mini-Boston," she says. "It's gotten real bad."
Near her downtown home, Mary Ann says, the homeless leave their trash all over the place. They trespass in yards and don't seem to care about their own personal appearance. A lot of them, she says, are addicts.
"My heart goes out to these people," she says, "but I sit out in my yard and talk to them and most of these people WANT to be homeless. They've got addictions, they've got money so they can drink. I understand that, I guess, but who wants to live on a dirty street like that?"
In just a matter of weeks, Mary Ann says, she's moving out of Lewiston.
Once they clear the library, Burrell and Gagnon are off to an alley between Lisbon and Canal streets for complaints that a homeless man has been sleeping next to a business door. In the alley, they find that the area in question has been cleaned and the homeless man who slept there is gone.
But complaints like this will keep coming, Gagnon knows that very well. For shopkeepers along Lisbon Street, the homeless are a problem and even the most compassionate of them have their line.
The officer recently had an encounter with one business owner whose patience was challenged by one specific homeless man who never seemed to be in a mood to compromise. For the business owner, the line that Sgt. Michaud talks about was finally crossed.
"At first," Sgt. Gagnon recalls, "he's like, 'If you can just move this guy along, I don't want to pursue anything.' Then it was the same person doing these things over and over and finally the business owner is like, 'I'm willing to go to court if you have to arrest him.' He had reached his point. Here he is trying to redevelop his building and this person just blocks the doorway and puts out all their trash and belongings."
It was a much bigger problem until police started focusing on that area.
"We were getting calls every morning from business owners who were trying to open up their shops," says Lt. St. Laurent, "but they couldn't do so because somebody was sleeping in their doorways. It's not fair to the business owner to have to deal with that over and over."
Police say that while their preference will always be to work out problems without making arrests, sometimes it's just not possible. If a homeless person is being belligerent, unruly or presenting a danger to the community in some other way, an officer has no choice but to make an arrest.
"But I can tell you," St. Laurent says, "That is the absolute last resort after numerous warnings and PSY support."
Bill Scanlan, the affable 57-year-old homeless man known on the streets as "Popz," experienced first hand the police attempts to compromise in place of taking hasty action.
Popz was the man who had been sleeping in the alley between Lisbon and Canal streets the night before. He had set up underneath an overhang next to the rear door of a business. A police officer, having been alerted by the business owner, came along to tell Popz he had to move. But it was the middle of the night and it would take Popz a long time to pull all of his stuff together and move along. This is a man who's suffered 11 heart attacks, after all. His health isn't great.
"So the police officer told me I could stay as long as I moved along by 5:30 a.m.," Popz said. "But I told him, 'I'm homeless. I don't have a watch or any way to tell the time.' So the officer said he'd come by at 5:30 a.m. to tell me it was time to go and we left it at that."
When Gagnon and Burrell stumbled upon Popz later in the day, he was huddled down on a sleeping bag next to the new Sun Journal offices next to Dufresne Park between Lisbon and Park streets. He had an overloaded shopping cart parked next to him and all sorts of bags stuffed full of everything he owns.
When Burrell approached Popz, she asked if he had eaten.
"It's been six days since I had anything to eat," Popz said.
Burrell got on the phone and called Trinity, which had already served breakfast that morning. When she reached someone there, she asked them to prepare a plate and set it aside for Popz. They agreed, so though Popz was being moved along, at least his next stop would involve food.
How Scanlan feels about the police handling of the homeless depends on what mood you catch him in. Some days he feels like the cops won't give him any peace. Other days, he feels they're being fair. Today he's feeling pretty OK with the way he's been treated by the police and mental health workers he encounters almost daily.
"They've gone way above and beyond to help me," he said. "If you don't hassle them, they won't hassle you."
While Popz was packing up and heading to Trinity, another homeless man emerged from an alley between Park and Lisbon streets. He soon fell into an easy conversation with Burrell and told her that he was just getting out of jail and had nowhere to go. Once again, Burrell began to list the resources that are available to him, handing over literature and writing down pertinent information. The homeless man seemed grateful. Will he follow up on all of it?
There's no way to tell. Chances are good that Gagnon, Burrell, Michaud or any of the other police officers on patrol in the downtown will come across the man again. And they will again offer assistance and provide him with contacts to get whatever help he needs.
While various groups argue over what should be done for the homeless, police are on the streets dealing with them directly, trying to balance human compassion with fairness for the people who live and do business in the downtown.
Can that balance be achieved? Recent city plans for a homeless shelter on Park Street have created more tension between some business owners and the city as they deal with the homelessness issue. Do downtown business owners feel optimistic about the future of the city?
The answer is not so easy to come by — recent attempts to elicit comments from downtown business owners did not go so well. Many refuse to talk about the situation at all. At least one got mad about being asked, while several others spoke at length, but only on the condition of anonymity.
"Things are really bad," said one of them, "and the business owners are scared to advocate for themselves."
Another Lisbon Street business owner says that before the latest police initiative got underway, conditions were near unbearable for anyone who had business in the area. She herself had been menaced and even threatened by homeless men in front of her shop. She had seen overdoses on the street and she took care to caution her clients about approaching drug users in front of her business.
The extra police patrols help, owners say.
"It's definitely better with the police presence," she says. "I have had officers come by and check to see how we are doing and if we need anything, especially as night time approaches."
Things are better now, she admits, and yet she still has to lock her front doors during business hours because otherwise the homeless will wander right in. And like other owners, she fears that things will get worse again once the new homeless shelter is up and running on nearby Park Street — a plan that was brought forward without any feedback from the business community, they say.
"None of us were even brought in for a discussion," she said, voicing a complaint echoed by other business owners and even city leaders and elected officials.
A third business owner said they feel like they run the risk of "getting canceled" if he or she criticizes the shelter plan or speaks publicly about the issues at all.
Another plans to move his business out of Lewiston as soon as possible — although the question becomes, where to go?
Just about everybody questioned on the matter agrees with one key point: The problem of homelessness is not exclusive to Lewiston. They see it in just about every Maine city they visit and they've heard horror stories about how bad the problem has gotten in bigger U.S. cities.
Nobody expects the problems to go away any time soon, either, but what is the right way to deal with the homeless in the meantime? Should police be making more arrests? Should they be making fewer? Are there better approaches?
As the sergeant pointed out while he was making his rounds, everybody's got a line, but no one can say for sure where that line should be.