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Many unhoused Lewiston residents left without shelter during shelter in place

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Many unhoused Lewiston residents left without shelter during shelter in place

Oct 31, 2023 | 4:58 am ET
By Emma Davis AnnMarie Hilton
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Many unhoused Lewiston residents left without shelter during shelter in place
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Several unhoused residents in Lewiston sought out overnight shelter in a gazebo during the shelter in place order as law enforcement searched for the mass shooting suspect. (Emma Davis/Maine Morning Star)

Few people walked the streets of Lewiston in the days following the mass shooting, as officials ordered the city and surrounding communities to shelter in place while law enforcement continued what ended up being a two-day search for the suspect. 

As grief set in for the 18 lives lost and 13 injured in the Wednesday shooting, the community continued to fear for their safety with the suspect still at-large. For those without a home, there were few options to retreat inside. Libraries, gas stations and other places where the unhoused can normally find temporary reprieve were closed. 

Lewiston residents Beth Smith, Daniel Aldridge and others who did not have a place to sleep during the shelter in place order spent the night in the gazebo in Kennedy Park.

“There was nowhere for people to shelter who had no shelter,” Smith said. 

Homeless shelter options in Lewiston are often at capacity and specialized for particular populations. More than 1,000 Lewiston residents experienced homelessness in 2021, according to a report from the mayoral ad hoc shelter committee, which also found that local shelters are full, on average, 91% of the year and must decline guests anywhere from 20-70% of the time.

‘One Lewiston’: Community gathers to mourn victims of mass shooting

During the shelter in place order, unhoused residents said they didn’t know where to turn. While many learned about the mass shooting and ensuing manhunt in the news and on social media, there was silence from officials when it came to how they were supposed to keep themselves safe while police searched for a man considered “armed and dangerous.”

The specific policies and procedures of providing unhoused residents with shelter during a shelter in place order are determined by individual communities, said Vanessa Corson, public information officer for the Maine Emergency Management Agency

“Each town may be different,” Corson explained in an email.

Existing shelters only open to existing guests

Most emergency shelters in Androscoggin County remained open during the shelter in place only for those already in the shelter. Few to none accepted new residents during the order. 

The only low-barrier, public shelter in Lewiston, Hope Haven Gospel Mission’s 32-bed shelter, is at capacity most nights. The shelter immediately went into lockdown when police announced the order but allowed anyone already in the shelter to remain, a representative said. 

Other shelters in Lewiston serve specific populations, with New Beginnings dedicated for youth and St. Martin de Porres Residence offering shelter by referral only. 

Our homeless guests were scared being outdoors during the shootings, with nowhere to hide.

– Erin Reed, Trinity Jubilee Center

Shelters elsewhere in Androscoggin County are dedicated for survivors of domestic violence or families. For example, Rural Community Action Ministries’ family shelter in Leeds was full and remained open during the order for those already staying there but did not accept new people, a representative said. This shelter for unhoused families operates differently than low-barrier, public shelters in that there is an intake application process with background checks. 

With overnight options limited, the day shelter at the Trinity Jubilee Center next to Kennedy Park became the next-best option. The facility, which doesn’t offer overnight accomodations, has stayed open during blizzards, ice storms and even the pandemic. Now, shelter in place orders have been added to that list. 

Executive director Erin Reed said staff continued to work their usual 7:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. hours during the two-day order. 

Our homeless guests were scared being outdoors during the shootings, with nowhere to hide,” Reed told Maine Morning Star. “They were very relieved that we opened up as usual and they could come indoors and we locked the door behind them.”

Smith, who slept in Kennedy Park, questioned why officials couldn’t make public buildings available for temporary shelter.

“They didn’t offer people who had no place to stay to go sit in the police department. There was no option. No open building for people to go to. Nothing,” she said.

Lewiston City Councilor Scott Harriman, who serves on the housing committee as well as the mayoral ad hoc shelter committee, said he was also not aware of any city-provided resources for unhoused individuals during the shelter in place order.

He said he raised the question of what unhoused residents were supposed to do in a group text with other city leaders. Acknowledging that the city was overwhelmed responding to the shooting, he said he doesn’t remember hearing other conversations about how to support those residents. 

“As far as I know, it wasn’t on anyone’s radar,” he said.

Maine Morning Star reached out to the Lewiston city council president, the mayor, Lewiston Housing and the state Department of Public Safety but did not receive any response. 

Proposed solutions stymied

Many unhoused Lewiston residents left without shelter during shelter in place
Ward 3 City Councilor Scott A. Harriman. (City of Lewiston photo)

While Lewison and surrounding communities were largely bunkered down for the days following the shooting, a previously unhoused Lewiston resident of 10 years, who asked not to be named, said she worried about missing work and losing her housing again.

“People are struggling to make ends meet,” she said, “and it’s hard to not be able to work.”

She’d been searching for work since July and had her first day as a temp on Wednesday, the day of the shooting. With her new employer shut down and no clear end date for the shelter in place order, she did not know how big her next paycheck would be. 

The shelter in place was lifted after roughly 48 hours, but there are policies that could have mitigated the fear and uncertainty foisted onto Lewiston’s unhoused community.

Scott Thistle, communications director for MaineHousing, an independent agency created by the legislature to address unsafe, overcrowded, and unaffordable housing, pointed specifically to the long-term statewide Housing First model funded last legislative session.

“Permanent, supportive housing really gets people out of homelessness for good in most cases,” Thistle said, referring to the system of getting people into permanent housing before addressing other needs, such as substance use disorder.

However, Thistle added that we also “need greater access to low barrier shelters so that people can get sheltered first.”

Lewiston could have had an emergency, low-barrier public shelter open in October. City officials collaborated with housing and service representatives in late 2022 to come up with a more robust temporary housing option for residents. 

The city was awarded nearly $4 million from MaineHousing to fund what would have been the Lewiston Unhoused Response Center within a block of Kennedy Park. It would have offered more beds and certain wraparound services, such as housing navigation, therapy and access to offsite substance use disorder treatment.

However, it never came to fruition after a failed 2 to 5 vote from the city council in June. The city ultimately lost the MaineHousing funding. 

Harriman, one of two councilors who voted in favor, said there has been continued resistance from the council to expand resources for the unhoused. Harriman, who is running unopposed in the upcoming election, says he plans to continue supporting efforts to address homelessness in his next term. 

Minute notes from that June meeting show community members and councilors had concerns about the proposed building’s physical condition and its location in the business district instead of close to services like the hospital. 

The funding cannot sit unused, Thistle explained, “so if Lewiston can’t bring a viable development to the table then we have to take it and use those resources where they’re going to be used to help people.”

Lewiston’s rejection of additional shelter capacity, in addition to its limited and often specialized existing shelter options, presents a clear challenge to support its unhoused population. A lack of procedurs for ensuring all residents are able to shelter in place when ordered by officials, however, are not exclusive to Lewiston, Thistle said.  

“Frankly,” he clarified, “I think the situation with the lockdown, the shelter in place was probably going to be problematic whether it would have occurred in Lewiston or whether it would have occurred in Portland or any other place where folks need shelter.”