Zach Burnham of Lewiston walks along College Street on Friday during the annual Lewiston-Auburn Homeless Vigil in Lewiston. Daryn Slover/Sun Journal

LEWISTON — On the longest night of the year, on or near the winter solstice, homeless advocates in Lewiston-Auburn take part in National Homeless Persons’ Memorial Day, honoring people who have died while living on the streets during the previous year.

This year, advocate and outgoing City Councilor Jim Lysen, while speaking to those gathered at the vigil last Friday, pointed to Lewiston’s lack of a barrier-free, overnight homeless shelter — somewhere that anyone, regardless of substance use, mental health issues or disabilities can escape the cold winter nights.

Outgoing Lewiston City Councilor Jim Lysen says there is a need for a barrier-free, overnight homeless shelter in Lewiston. Lysen participated Friday in the annual Lewiston-Auburn Homeless Vigil in Lewiston. Daryn Slover/Sun Journal

On the day of the vigil, Lysen and others told the Sun Journal it is imperative Lewiston find a solution or, at the very least, start having serious conversations about how it could be done.

“We have people currently living on the streets in this cold weather just because there is not a low-barrier or barrier-free shelter,” he said. “I’ve been doing this walk for 20 years, and I don’t think we do too much as a city.”

The next day, he said he had already been contacted by four people hoping to help in the planning efforts.

Lewiston, the second-largest city in Maine, does not have a public, city-run shelter, and it does not give funding to its existing shelters.

During the day, people can go to places like the Trinity Jubilee Center, which offers meals and a range of services, but the overnight hours in Lewiston are more complicated.

While there are now three overnight shelters in Lewiston, with more than 60 beds between them, the privately run shelters set their own criteria, some either requiring a referral and/or religious participation, while others are gender-based.

Representatives serving on the Lewiston/Auburn Alliance for Services to the Homeless, or LAASH, said the long-running committee has been looking at the issue for years, but no concrete proposal has come forward. How to fund it and staff it are other hurdles.

Giff Jamison, co-chair of LAASH, said there are various models being looked at for Lewiston. One is implementing something similar to the Bangor Area Homeless Shelter, or Hope House, a low-barrier shelter also in Bangor.

But Jamison said the first step for Lewiston could simply be a small overnight shelter or “warming center,” like the one opened by the Bangor Area Homeless Shelter in 2018. That means the shelter does not  necessarily need to be a sleeping space, just “a safe place where people can get out of the cold.”

Jamison, director of operations for the Brunswick-based Tedford Housing, said a small group of providers recently discussed the possibility of a warming center in Lewiston. The LAASH meeting minutes described a plan to reach out to Maine Housing for funding or applying for grants.

He said there are often reminders of why this is a critical issue, including around Thanksgiving, when a homeless man was found dead in his sleeping bag along railroad tracks in Brunswick.

“I would echo the sentiment that unsheltered homelessness is really a concern amongst many, many homeless providers,” Jamison said.

During his time on the council, which ends Jan. 6, Lysen said he has been approached multiple times by people advocating for more to be done.

Lysen said the housing-first model for bringing people out of homelessness is proven to work, but that Lewiston has “unfortunately not been able to bridge that gap” for a wide number of reasons, including a housing shortage.

During a City Council discussion Dec. 17, Lysen pushed for language to be added to the city’s consolidated plan regarding its Community Development Block Grant funding, making it clear some kind of public shelter is needed.

“It is clearly a huge undertaking,” Mayor Kristen Cloutier said, “but it is one of the topics that I have asked that the newly formed Housing Committee focus on,”

According to Lewiston Social Services, the department has seen 204 homeless cases in 2019, but those numbers do not likely reflect the total homeless population in the city.

Social Services Director Elaine Brackett said the city’s data in previous years is likely inaccurate.

While city officials say discussions over the need for a public shelter have been going on for years, Lysen goes further. He said when he first came to the city, an unnamed city official told him it was easier not to discuss the homeless issue at all.

“If you acknowledge it, then you have to do something about it,” he said, referring to the official. “I just don’t think there’s been an acknowledgment of the issue.”

Lewiston is far from the only Maine municipality dealing with the issue of homelessness. Cities like Portland and Bangor have often been the face of the issue in the media, with Portland’s ongoing search for an alternate location for its shelter, and Bangor’s well-documented homeless encampments.

But those cities can also point to efforts to address the issue. This fall, Bangor hired a designated homeless outreach caseworker. The city’s General Assistance department also provides funding to the Bangor Area Homeless Shelter and Hope House, which operates a low-barrier shelter and transitional housing units.

For people like Avner David Ring, who spent most of this year outside near Kennedy Park, barriers to Lewiston’s shelters are the difference between sleeping inside or out.

Calvin Dube, a homeless advocate, assisted Ring when he was living outside the former Sun Journal building this summer. Ring, who suffers from a number of ailments, cannot make it up the stairs to the residences at Hope Haven on Lincoln Street. Eventually, Ring was taken to St. Mary’s Regional Medical Center in Lewiston. Dube said he believes Ring is still there.

Dube, who ran Trinity Jubilee for 12 years, said Lewiston needs a shelter that’s barrier-free, “non-secular” and “wet/dry,” meaning one that allows people with substance use issues in the door.

“The three shelters presently have some pretty rigid rules about that,” he said.

He said he is working with three homeless men who are having difficulty finding a place to go at night. One of the men, he said, is spending his third winter in a row on the streets. Due to a history of drinking, he was not allowed to stay at an unnamed Lewiston shelter.

Dube, like others, said Lewiston has long talked about it, but “making a commitment has been a difficult challenge.”

Lewiston needs a place, even if only eight to 10 beds, “just to get people off the streets,” he said. “It’s a public health emergency.”

Lysen said last week there is “no question” that providing a public shelter is a controversial issue.

“Where do you put it?” he said, referring to the ongoing dilemma in Portland.

But in Lewiston, he said, it needs to start somewhere.

“I think there might be critical mass enough to move forward with at least coming up with some solutions and options,” he said.

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