Holding her white cane, Robin Oviatt stands outside her shelter Thursday at her rented campsite in Augusta. The blue tarp covers pop-up canopies with a tent inside under them. She lost her apartment in March. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal

AUGUSTA — Robin Oviatt has been unable to find a place to live that she can afford after being evicted from her apartment in March, so she has made her own makeshift shelter next to city park in Augusta.

Oviatt, 50, is not alone. She said she’s seen a substantial increase recently in the number of homeless people in and around the state’s capital city, and she expects to see more as some of the eviction protections put in place during the COVID-19 pandemic expire.

Now with winter approaching and the number of people without housing in Augusta on the rise, officials are exploring what options are available to help get people off the streets, including a possible emergency homeless shelter.

On Thursday, city officials are expected to meet with representatives of organizations working on housing issues to address problems created by the lack of affordable housing across central Maine.

Augusta city officials have also noticed an increase in the number of unhoused people in the city.

In a recent, wide-ranging discussion about homelessness, some councilors said the city needs to work with social service agencies and other partners on a long-term solution. But with winter bearing down and housing remaining in short supply, they also said the city needs to consider opening an emergency shelter as soon as possible to provide a place for homeless people to escape the cold at night.

The ongoing problem was worsened recently.  Two Augusta hotels have opted out of working with Kennebec Valley Community Action Program to house homeless people in long-term stays. And the Edwards House in Augusta, previously a go-to rental housing site for people in need, no longer takes tenants through the city’s General Assistance program, leading to a lack of places agencies and the city can place people with nowhere else to go.

“That says to me we’re at critical mass for people at the lowest income levels in our community,” At-Large City Councilor Courtney Allen said during a lengthy and robust discussion of homelessness at the Oct. 28 council meeting.

“I think we need a task force to work with community partners to submit a grant application to create a low-barrier, large shelter. And I also agree with Councilor (Raegan) LaRochelle that we need to do something right now. The city has never done that kind of thing in Augusta before, I understand that. But I think we’re at critical mass and people are going to die on the streets this winter.”

Nicole Mullens, of the city’s Health and Welfare Department, said her office is seeing a mix of people homeless and looking for help. She said the loss of the Edwards House as a resource was a big hit. Other landlords have also expressed reluctance to take General Assistance clients, citing concerns about behavior problems and substance use. She said some clients have burned bridges with landlords or hotels in the city.

Mullins said the city is at the point of being in a prolonged homeless crisis.

“We need to address this and figure out what options we have to fix the problem at hand before it keeps getting worse, as it appears to be now,” she said.

Holding her foldable white cane, Robin Oviatt stands inside her shelter Thursday at her rented campsite in Augusta. She sleeps in a tent, right, that’s sheltered under pop-up canopies and a tarp. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal

At-Large Councilor Raegan LaRochelle suggested looking for buildings that could be repurposed as an emergency temporary homeless shelter. She also suggested using some of the money the city is spending through General Assistance to pay for hotel rooms for 10 nights a month for unhoused people to instead set up a shelter facility with bedding and pool those resources together to provide them with shelter for the whole month, not just 10 days of it.

The cost, however, is a factor.

Mayor David Rollins said the city and its population of fewer than 19,000 people can’t afford to open and run a homeless shelter all by itself, and the state and federal government does not provide adequate help that would allow a city of Augusta’s size to do so, either.

Currently, Bread of Life Ministries operates a homeless shelter in Augusta, but it’s often full.

Among the officials working on housing issues is Michele Prince, chief operating officer of Kennebec Valley Community Action Program. She is also chairwoman of a multi-agency task force on affordable housing formed during the pandemic to find ways to address problems that a lack of affordable housing has brought to central Maine.

On Friday, Prince said the lack of housing at any price is the biggest factor contributing to the increase in the number of people who are homeless. The lack is even more acute in housing that people with low incomes can afford, which she said is a problem across the state, not just in Augusta.

Robin Oviatt holds up a note on the back of a business card Thursday in Augusta. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal

Some people with low incomes who have received housing vouchers can’t find any places to rent, she said, either because the rent is higher than the cap allowed through the voucher programs or because landlords are reluctant to work with those programs.

Prince said her agency was working with about 40 people housed in Augusta at the Comfort Inn and Best Western before the hotels decided to stop providing housing. Most of them have since either found permanent housing or are working with case managers at Mid-Maine Homeless Shelter in Waterville and are in temporary housing while they look for a permanent place to live.

For Oviatt, her current solution is her own makeshift shelter, a combination of a tent and pop-up canopies all covered by a large blue tarp. That shelter sits on a parcel of what she said is private property adjacent to the city’s Gage Street park.

She said she’s renting that space from the property owner because she hasn’t been able to find another apartment in a tight real estate market with escalating rents. The $800 in monthly Social Security disability-related payments she gets isn’t enough to pay for even a single-bedroom apartment in the Augusta-Gardiner area she said. She needs to stick to that area because she lost her sight. Having lived in that area for the last 20 years, she knows how to get around.

Despite her lack of stable housing, and having to deal with a litany of health problems including her vision impairment, rheumatoid arthritis, hypoglycemia, post-traumatic stress disorder, mental disability, and a bad gallbladder, Oviatt said she feels blessed to have the tent and a spot to set it up.

Robin Oviatt holds up a stuffed animal that her late husband gave her while sitting inside her tent Thursday at her rented campsite in Augusta. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal

“I’m blessed. Before I found this spot I wandered the streets, 24/7,” she said Thursday, just outside her neatly kept tent enclosure, heated only by a two-burner Coleman camping cookstove.

“This is how I live. And it’s hard. It’s hard on me but I know how it’s even harder for other homeless people, who may not have any money, who have nowhere to go. There’s got to be a way to help these people. Homeless are the most vulnerable people. Stop the politics and start caring about people.”

Oviatt said Catholic Charities is trying to help her find an apartment, but so far hasn’t been able to find one she could afford, and any apartments that open up are taken quickly. She said it’s been harder for her to find a new place to live because a previous landlord claimed she had confrontations with other tenants, which she denies, and her previous housing voucher was taken away.

For now, she’s worked to put in a simple drainage system, using a PVC pipe she found that someone discarded to keep her tent area from getting too muddy. She has equipped her tent with a portable toilet she cleans daily, and a carbon monoxide alarm and fire extinguisher. She also keeps a large teddy bear in her tent, a gift from her husband, David, who died in 2106.

She said over the summer city police notified her she had to leave the site within 24 hours; if she didn’t the city would remove all her items from the site. She said the city backed down when she showed the property was not part of the city’s park and was private property.

What Oviatt really wants is a single-bedroom apartment, with heat and utilities within her price range. She agreed there isn’t enough housing and criticized officials for not taking action before now to create more low-income housing.

“If this is happening to me, and I have some smarts, some capabilities, what’s going on for people who don’t have a voice?” she said. “They’re more than getting thrown under the bus, they’re being put into the meat grinder.”


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