The Westbrook City Council is poised to approve an emergency shelter ordinance that would let private providers open small shelters in certain types of buildings, including single-family homes and churches.

The city’s current ordinance prohibits overnight shelters and is seen by advocates as a legal barrier that is blocking the resources needed to help people achieve stability and secure long-term housing. Now, city leaders say they recognize the need to make changes to support the growing number of homeless people in the city and that the best path forward is to allow churches and other agencies to open small-scale facilities.

The council will hold a public hearing and final vote on the zoning changes Monday night. The city has no plans to build or operate a shelter and there are no current proposals from outside organizations being considered.

“Homelessness in our community is really a product of the ongoing housing crisis we are seeing all over our region. We are trying to provide a framework for civic organizations in our community to provide emergency shelter, if they are able and willing to do so, and have a licensing mechanism to do that in appropriate circumstances,” acting Mayor David Morse said.

The idea of changing the ordinance to allow for small shelters was supported by the Westbrook Housing Coalition, which formed in 2022 out of concern for the hundreds of residents at risk of becoming homeless as federal emergency rental assistance ended. The coalition recognized that people from Westbrook who become homeless often go to Portland for services or to try to get into a shelter, but many fall through the cracks, said Liz McLellan, co-chair of the coalition.

“Portland has taken on a lot of the weight of that,” she said. “We wanted to show people Westbrook is open to shelters.”


Last fall, the City Council tasked the planning board with developing zoning and licensing requirements for small shelters. It does not allow for large shelters like the city-run 258-bed Homeless Services Center on Riverside Street in Portland.

Liz McLellan, co-chair of the Westbrook Community Housing Coalition, shown in February, said, “We wanted to show people Westbrook is open to shelters.” Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

The Westbrook city staff and planning board spent several months developing an ordinance that would allow family and youth shelters in single-family homes and duplexes. It also would allow transitional housing and accessory shelters – most likely warming shelters during the winter – in buildings owned by private civic organizations, including churches.

“We’re trying to give a piece of the puzzle of dealing with homelessness in Maine by reducing the barriers for a private entity to come into our community. We feel like this is Westbrook’s part of the plan,” city planner Jennie Franceschi said.

If the changes are enacted by the council, any shelters would have to be licensed by the city, and no more than 80 beds at accessory shelters or transitional housing could open citywide.

The ordinance also would create standards for shelter operators – including that they have at least two years of experience operating a shelter or working with an organization that does – and lay out rules for safety measures. All shelters would need to be near services like public transportation, which planning board members felt was important for them to successfully support the people staying there, and there would be buffers to keep accessory shelters and transitional housing away from schools, child care centers and parks.

“We tried to be very thoughtful and understanding that there are impacts that are felt,” Franceschi said. “We’re trying to mitigate those impacts to the greatest extent that we can.”



City officials say they have been frustrated by misinformation about the proposed ordinance that has circulated online and on social media and emphasized that it was not crafted to help any one group, such as asylum seekers.

“We don’t have a specific population we are talking about or who is going to come into these shelters,” Franceschi said. “We know very clearly that we have homeless people in our community.”

McLellan, from the housing coalition, has tried to talk to people in the community about their concerns, some of which she said are rooted in xenophobia. She said she gives people details about the proposal and tries to show them that homeless people “are people just like us.”

“Whether it is someone who is struggling with substance use disorder or someone who did not make a livable wage and could not sustain their rent or it is an asylum-seeking family trying to make a new life here, these are all people,” she said. “Being unhoused is a circumstance and not an identity. Having the resources to support people while they change their circumstances is the only way we can make a dent and change the direction of this crisis.”

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