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New restrictions for where unhoused can stay in Lewiston prompts urgency for solutions

On Wednesday evening, several dozen community members gathered on Main Street in Lewiston for a candlelight vigil honoring those experiencing homelessness.

LEWISTON, Maine — Dozens gathered below the "Hopeful" sign on Main Street in Lewiston Wednesday to remember people experiencing homeless as winter begins and the holiday's approach. 

For roughly an hour, advocates for the unhoused community stood along the sidewalk as numerous cars honked in support. The vigil happened on the winter solstice, the first day of winter and regarded as the longest night of the year.

Wednesday's vigil also came in the wake of a new ordinance passed in Lewiston, which places restrictions on where people experiencing homelessness can sleep.

"People who are literally homeless really do feel that there isn't an option for them," Chris Bicknell, executive director of New Beginnings, said. 

New Beginnings is a nonprofit based in Lewiston that works with youth and teens in the region who are experiencing homelessness. 

Lewiston City Council voted 4-3 Tuesday in favor of a new ordinance that bans camping, sleeping, or being on the grounds of any municipal building or property between the hours of 9 p.m. and 5 a.m.

Lewiston police Chief David St. Pierre was unavailable for an interview Wednesday but said during the council meeting Tuesday that the ordinance change is based around safety for the public and those who are unhoused.

"The intent is not criminalize anything but to give us a little bit more power that we can move people along, try to find them a safe place. We do so with compassion," St. Pierre said.

Many in the community, however, are pushing back on the new restrictions, including the Mayor of Lewiston.

"Last night's vote was unfortunate. It sends the wrong message for our city, and it's not where we need to be headed," Mayor Carl Sheline said. "It's my hope that the council and the city can work with community partners in the effort to stand up a winter shelter. I think it's important for our unhoused, and it's concerning that we don't have one already." 

Earlier this year, Lewiston held a six-month moratorium in effect on new homeless shelters in the city, which was lifted in the fall. There have been preliminary discussions but no formal action to establish a shelter.

"We really need a temporary winter shelter, and the city is in current talks with community partners to see what's possible," Sheline said.  

Advocates like Bicknell have said the lack of a low-barrier emergency shelter paired with the new restrictions cause major concerns for advocates and the unhoused population in the region. 

"Those two things compound each other and make it really difficult for anybody experiencing homeless to find safety in this community," Bicknell said. 

This fall, the City of Auburn proposed a plan to build a community of small, modular homes that could house up to 48 individuals experiencing homelessness in the area. 

Levesque said work has not begun on the project amid funding concerns. He also said he believes it is a regional issue, and communities need to work together to create a solution. 

"We do have a visible issue," Levesque said. "We don't want to brush this issue under the carpet. It needs to be addressed. We need to have regional leadership. We also need to recognize the practicality of where this temporary shelter should be."

Levesque added that he and his staff are willing to support any new shelter in the region. However, he said it should be located in Lewiston, close to where more regional services are for those experiencing homelessness. 

According to Levesque, last week the Auburn City Council postponed a decision to have the planning board review potential zoning changes for a shelter. Levesque said he and the city are still very open to working with local nonprofits, the county, and municipalities to bring a new shelter to area. 

 Advocates like Bicknell have argued a new shelter is overdue. 

"Even one more bed. That's a low barrier. A bed that can be accessed by someone is going to make a difference for that person, an immeasurable difference," Bicknell said. 

The new ordinance in Lewiston impacting where those experiencing homelessness can sleep is set to go into effect April 1, 2023.

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