Gabe walks the streets of downtown Lewiston on Tuesday. Gabe said that he has been homeless over half of his life because of bad decisions he made when he was a teenager growing up in Belfast. “I put myself on the streets,” said Gabe. “But once you put yourself in that hole, it is tough to climb out. People say that it’s as easy as getting a job, but it’s hard to interview for a job when you have not slept for three days and have no place to take a shower.” Daryn Slover/Sun Journal

AUGUSTA — Legislators may make it impossible for Lewiston or other major Maine cities to impose moratoria to block the opening of new shelters for homeless people.

The State and Local Government Committee agreed Tuesday to support a bill to bar municipalities with populations of 20,000 or more — which includes Portland, Lewiston and Bangor — from adopting measures to block new shelters.

The move came in response to a 2022 moratorium imposed by Lewiston to sideline a proposed shelter, a move the city’s leaders no longer support.

Scott Harriman, a Lewiston city councilor, said that “no municipality should be working to prevent the creation of shelters that can keep people out of the weather, off the streets and provide them with necessary services.”

“Unfortunately,” Harriman said, “that’s what happened in my community.”

State Rep. Kristen Cloutier, a Lewiston Democrat who cosponsored the measure, said the April 2022 decision by the Lewiston council to impose a six-month moratorium on shelters meant that plans for a new 24-hour, low-barrier shelter “immediately halted and no new shelters have been established” since.


“Meanwhile,” Cloutier said, “our housing crisis grows more dire by the day.”

The committee voted 6-3 to support passage of the measure. It needs to win the backing of the state House, state Senate and, in most cases, Gov. Janet Mills before it becomes law.

One of those opposed to the bill, state Rep. Randall Greenwood, a Wales Republican, said he thinks there isn’t an issue at stake worth trumping local control.

“I don’t have an appetite for this,” Greenwood said. “We’re literally picking on one city.”

Portland Mayor Mark Dion hailed the proposal.

“The shortage of housing and the escalating costs of homes and rents have led to severe consequences, including a rise in homelessness,” he said. “This crisis encompasses families unable to afford rising rents, individuals grappling with mental health and substance use issues, and those seeking asylum in Maine, all in need of immediate shelter.”


Dion said shelters “play a critical role in solving homelessness and in keeping communities safe.”

Prohibiting major municipalities from banning emergency shelters, he said, would help.

Boo spends Tuesday afternoon on the streets of Lewiston. “I can’t take the cold anymore,” Boo said. “I really can’t. I cry every day.” Daryn Slover/Sun Journal

“At a time when housing options are limited and our unhoused populations continue to grow, it is imperative that we can create emergency shelters in municipalities across Maine,” Dion said.

“During a time when housing is scarce and unhoused Mainers continue to struggle, we must pursue solutions that would help ensure that our community members have a warm, safe place to lay their head at night,” Cloutier said.

“Passing moratoria, such as the one enacted in Lewiston, not only does the opposite, but it puts pressure on surrounding cities and towns to house those who can’t find shelter in Lewiston,” she said.

“We must do better,” Cloutier said, because imposing moratoria instead of taking steps to help “fails miserably at addressing the root causes of homelessness.”


Michael Kebede, policy counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine, said the law is “urgently needed.”

“Housing — let alone shelter — is a human right, and cities in Maine ought not be allowed to deprive their residents of this right by prohibiting emergency shelters,” Kebede said.

Taylor Cray, advocacy supervisor at Preble Street, said that shelters “are equivalent to emergency rooms for those experiencing homelessness. When there is nowhere else to go, there should be emergency shelter.”


Cray said the lack of shelters is a crisis across Maine.

Speaking to lawmakers recently, he told them, “Today in Portland, in freezing weather, the only warming center in the city closed at seven in the morning. No other available public spaces were open until the library opened at ten in the morning.”


“Shelters play a critical role in keeping individuals safe and should not be limited,” Cray said.

State Rep. Grayson Lookner, a Portland Democrat, said that “neighbors helping neighbors is a fundamental Maine value — and while my city and many other municipalities across Maine have been doing more than their fair share to provide solutions to the crisis in homelessness, often inadequately, sadly others have not.”

“When large municipalities in Maine that serve as regional service centers pass moratoria on emergency shelters, it unfairly burdens other communities that have been doing their part,” Lookner said.

“Together, we can solve the housing and homelessness crisis, but it’s going to require everyone to do their part,” he said.

“Mainers stepping up to the plate to do their part for the community is part of what makes this state such a great and unique place to live,” Lookner said. “This bill is only asking those municipalities with the ability to do just that: pull their weight.”

Lewiston City Council David Chittim successfully urged the committee during a recent public hearing to expand the number of cities it covers. Originally, it set the threshold so only cities with more than 30,000 residents would be covered.


Otherwise, he said, if a neighboring city such as Auburn or South Portland enacted a moratoria, it could drive homeless people to “their larger neighbors,” like Lewiston and Portland.

The committee on Tuesday lowered the number to 20,000 before approving it, which would add Auburn to the communities prohibited from imposing a moratorium.

State Rep. Mana Abdi, a Lewiston Democrat, said the law ought to look after everybody.

She said nobody should be left outside during frigid Maine winters that she has to steel herself every year to get through.

Abdi said every time, she tells herself “I can do this” but ultimately wonders “what am I doing here?”

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