Lewiston council prepares new homeless shelter ordinance for vote
LEWISTON — An ordinance regulating homeless shelters in the city could be approved as early as Sept. 20, after officials on Tuesday ended weeks of debate over the new regulations.
The city council has been working to implement a new ordinance ahead of the expiry of a controversial 180-day moratorium on shelters that was approved this spring.
Among the key compromises coming Tuesday were capping the number of shelter beds allowed in Lewiston, as well as language defining what constitutes “low barrier” shelter.
The proposed shelter ordinance was drafted by city staff working in tandem with an ad hoc shelter committee, which produced a report on the extent of the homelessness problem in Lewiston, along with recommendations on new shelter regulations.
Tuesday’s workshop was a continuation of talks that were not completed last week, with officials disagreeing on some major elements of the proposal. One was a proposal to cap the total number of shelter beds in the city at 134. There are 83 operating shelter beds in Lewiston.
A proposal from Councilor Rick Lachapelle on Tuesday would lower the cap to 120, but add language saying there is no cap on youth and family shelter beds. His original proposal, which was specific to homeless students, came in response to a public comment last week that said there were some 250 homeless students in Lewiston schools.
Councilors agreed to the wording, including not imposing a cap on youth and families, but the shelter committee was asked to come back with additional wording specific to regulating shelter beds for youth and families. families.
Another point that was hotly debated was the terms barrier-free and low-barrier shelters. Craig Saddlemire, co-chair of the ad hoc shelter committee, said the term low barrier refers to shelters that have limited entry restrictions, which is considered best practice by Maine Housing and the U.S. Department of Housing. and urban development.
Wording of the order supported Tuesday would require all shelters to submit a policy outlining criteria for guest entry and stay, but would not allow “barrier-free” shelters.
The low barrier definition in the ordinance includes stipulations that service is denied to those carrying weapons or exhibiting violent behavior, are in possession of illegal substances and more.
There was some debate over whether sobriety should be required to enter, but a majority of council said that as long as substances were not allowed at the shelter, shelters should not turn away people seeking ugly.
Saddlemire said research has shown that stable housing is a huge factor in overcoming addiction.
“Do we want them dealing with their addiction on the streets in public, or letting them into a shelter and then connecting them to services? he said.
Another point that may require further action from the authorities is a proposal to require existing shelters to become 24-hour shelters within five years of the ordinance taking effect. .
While some said existing shelters should be exempt from many of the ordinance’s requirements, including 24-hour operation, others said the city should move towards the model that would offer more options to the homeless during the day.
“Just because we’ve done things a certain way doesn’t mean we have to keep doing it,” Councilor Stephanie Gélinas said, adding that five years would be enough for the four existing shelters to come into compliance. .
Mayor Carl Sheline said that during Maine winters, many homeless people with nowhere to go during the day head “to the library,” and that “places an undue burden on the rest of the city and on neighboring businesses.
Councilman Bob McCarthy said he’s worried the requirement will close existing shelters, which he says is the opposite of what the city is trying to do with the shelters.
Councilor Linda Scott suggested further discussions with existing shelters.
Over the next few weeks, the ordinance will move to council votes. According to David Hediger, director of planning and code enforcement, the first reading and public hearing of the ordinance will take place on September 6.
A Planning Board hearing would take place on September 12 on the specific zoning issues of the ordinance, and if a positive recommendation is received, the council would hold a second reading on September 20.
Hediger said that with the moratorium expiring Sept. 25, the council may want to extend the moratorium for a limited time, as the order would not come into effect until 30 days after it was approved. He said it would give a window of a few weeks for someone to submit a shelter project under the existing rules, although he admitted the chances of that happening were “slim”.
It was unclear whether the short extension would be backed by the full board. The initial moratorium was adopted by 4 votes to 3.
Photo: “Rattle Can Rocky”