Video: Lewiston shelter committee to hold public listening sessions

·4 min read

Jun. 1—LEWISTON — The city's ad hoc shelter committee will hold two public "listening sessions" this month to help inform its final report to the City Council.

According to a city news release Tuesday, the report is expected to be complete by this fall, which will coincide with the end of the current six-month moratorium on new homeless shelters.

The sessions Mondays, June 6 and 13, are meant to obtain feedback on how the city should address homelessness, and committee members are hoping to hear solutions, ideas and concerns from a broad spectrum of residents.

The mayoral ad hoc committee was formed in March as Lewiston officials debated the moratorium that was ultimately approved in April.

According to the initial announcement, the committee will "advise and make recommendations to the City Council on homelessness, shelters, and the range of housing options necessary to reduce homelessness in Lewiston."

Committee Co-chairman Craig Saddlemire said Tuesday that the sessions are part of information gathering, which will inform the committee's eventual recommendations.

"This issue is deeply felt in our community, either by those who are unhoused, or those who know or encounter people who are unhoused," he said. "We feel it's important to hear all community perspectives, experiences and voices on this matter."

Mayor Carl Sheline said Tuesday that part of the inspiration of forming the committee was to make sure city officials heard public feedback on this issue.

"Homelessness in Lewiston is certainly a communitywide conversation, and we very much want public input as the committee moves forward," he said.

The session June 6 will take place at 5 p.m. at the Lewiston Armory, 65 Central Ave.; June 13's will begin at 5 p.m. at the Lewiston Public Library, 200 Lisbon St.

During a council workshop May 17, Saddlemire and committee Co-chairwoman Amy Smith solicited feedback from the council on what questions and concerns they'd like to see addressed in the report. The council was asked what aspect of the issue concerned them most, and what they were hearing from constituents.

Councilor Rick Lachapelle said he and the other three councilors who supported the moratorium — Lee Clement, Larry Pease and Robert McCarthy — had been unfairly criticized for the decision.

"I never said I didn't want a shelter," Lachapelle said, adding that his biggest concern is addressing addiction and mental health.

Clement said the majority of the council simply wanted to make sure a shelter was "done right."

Much of the focus from councilors has been on the concept of a low-barrier shelter, which according to Saddlemire, is a term that is used to describe a shelter that has less conditions and is more "universally accessible" to homeless compared to other shelters.

Saddlemire said the term has "become a loaded one, and is perhaps a distraction" from conversations among the council and members of the community to explore "the tools that work, the tools we have now, and what tools don't we have" to address the issue.

Several councilors said they would like to see some kind of licensing or regulatory requirements in place that are specific to homeless shelters.

McCarthy said he'd like Lewiston to "learn from the mistakes of other cities."

Councilor Stephanie Gelinas said her biggest concern is for the individuals experiencing homelessness. She said it's been "clear in my conversations sometimes" that more communitywide education on the issue is needed, including on what a low-barrier shelter truly means.

"If we're going to embrace this work, we need to fully understand it and not be bitter about it," she said.

Lachapelle asked several questions about the city's current shelters, including the shelter population, how many beds are available and where the individuals are from. He questioned if Lewiston was "looking at the wrong avenue," stating that the large majority of people in shelters are dealing with addiction or mental health problems.

Homeless advocates have argued that the city needs a low-barrier shelter that offers a range of services, including substance and mental health counseling, under one roof in order to more easily transition people out of homelessness.

Councilor Linda Scott said the city needs a "resource center with all the resources in one place." She also said she hopes the committee hears from residents who lived near the city's two former emergency shelters, which were in operation at the Lewiston Armory and then the Ramada Hotel at 490 Pleasant St. during the pandemic.

"I'm hopeful that we can come up with solutions together," Saddlemire said during the workshop.