Elmond Wright, 55, and his service dog, Lucas, in their tent at a homeless encampment adjacent to Mechanics Park in Biddeford on Monday. The city hopes to move people to a temporary shelter early next month and will close the encampment on July 8. But Wright said the shelter isn’t an option for him because of Lucas, who senses when Wright, who has epilepsy, is about to have a seizure. “I have a Plan B,” Wright said about what he might do next. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

BIDDEFORD — In the 10 months that Elmond Wright has lived in a tent on the edge of an encampment downtown near the Saco River, he’s heard a lot of people make promises: to get him help, to find him an apartment, to find housing for the dozens of others living here.

So when he heard that the city plans to open a temporary shelter and move people out of the encampment next month, he assumed that promise would be a broken, too. Some of his neighbors say they’ll head to the shelter when it opens, but Wright doesn’t think it’s a good option for him, in part because he worries he wouldn’t be able to bring his service dog, Lucas, who helps with his epilepsy.

“I hate it here. I can’t stand it here,” Wright, 55, said Monday while sitting on the edge of the bed in his tent, Lucas at his knee. “But I’ll stay right here.”

After several years of discussion about how to address the growing housing crisis and homelessness, the City Council has given the go-ahead to create a temporary shelter at a local nonprofit agency and to move people out of encampments on public property by July 8. Then the city will continue to work toward long-term regional solutions to homelessness.

City leaders say the plan is a compassionate and dignified way to help.

“We don’t think that being outside is a dignified or safe existence for anyone,” Mayor Marty Grohman said. “It’s not safe.”


But they recognize that some of the estimated 40-60 people living in tents may not agree to move inside.

By early next month, a temporary shelter will open at the Seeds of Hope Neighborhood Center, which for years has been running an overnight warming shelter during the winter. Overflow space will be available at the Second Congregational Church, if needed. The initial cost will be about $319,000 to cover staffing, operational costs and supplies. The estimated daily cost to run the shelter is $1,250 per facility.

Biddeford will close homeless encampments – like this one adjacent to Mechanics Park on Water Street – on July 8. City officials believe at least a third of the people living in tents will move to the temporary homeless shelter opening next month at the Seeds of Hope Neighborhood Center. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

But the plan goes far beyond simply providing indoor space, City Manager Jim Bennett said.

The city will integrate General Assistance in the same way that Portland does for people who stay at shelters. Anyone who wants to stay at the facility in Biddeford will have to go through the GA intake process, which can also qualify them for assistance for food and other basic needs. The city will establish a daily fee to charge back to GA to cover some of the cost of providing shelter, and the state will reimburse 70% of GA costs.

Seeds of Hope also will receive $788,000 from the city to renovate the second floor of its building into a shelter space with 30 to 40 beds and bathrooms. That funding is from federal Community Development Block Grant money that the City Council has already designated for housing solutions.

Until that work is finished, people staying at the shelter will use the same zero-gravity chairs the center uses for the winter warming shelter in the space where it offers meals and other programming.


The plan approved 7-1 by the council follows the guidance of the federal Martin v. Boise ruling that says cities can’t enforce anti-camping policies on public property if there aren’t enough beds for the homeless population, Grohman said.

Portland took a similar approach to dealing with large encampments on public property last year. Before clearing them, the city gave those living at the camps at least a few weeks warning and outreach workers tried to get people to move into the city’s 258-bed Homeless Services Center.

“We will have an indoor option for each person who is currently outside and we want them to take it,” Grohman said. “It doesn’t mean there will never be a tent that springs up, but we’re going to reach out to those people frequently.”

Mick “Happy” Seaver, 69, was recently evicted from an apartment in Biddeford and has been living in an encampment adjacent to Mechanics Park on Water Street for a few weeks. He says he’ll consider going to the shelter opening next month at the Seeds of Hope Neighborhood Center. “It would be nice to be under cover,” he said. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer


Jake Hammer, a social worker who will oversee the program to assist homeless residents, told city councilors last week that he and other outreach workers have been talking to people at the encampment about the new indoor option. They also have been trying to connect them with resources – including housing, substance use treatment and other services – and that work will continue at Seeds of Hope, he said.

“It’s going to be key to getting the help that they need to find stability in housing,” Hammer said. Housing options could range from apartments to sober living homes and transitional housing, depending on the needs of the person, he said.


Hammer said that he’s heard excitement from some people at the encampment who used the shelter in the winter and are eager to go back. Others are feeling uneasy and anxiety levels are high, he said.

About a third of the people at the encampment are “chomping at the bit to get indoors,” he said. He estimates another third have other options for places to stay and the remainder will not want to go inside, regardless of the arrangements the city offers.

“If everyone decides to come inside, we’ll have a place for them,” said Bennett, the city manager.

The city is still working on plans to help people move their belongings. Bennett said the city will store some belongings and Seeds of Hope will have space for people to keep the items they need every day.

With the extra focus on supporting people and preparing them for the July 8 deadline, Hammer said they hope the move won’t come as a surprise to anyone at the encampment.

“We can get it done well and in a manner that dignifies the folks down there and minimizes harm,” he said.



News of the shelter and July 8 deadline was met with skepticism by some at the encampment near Mechanics Park on Water Street. More than 30 tents are set up on a flat lot bounded on two sides by trees. The area is a block off Main Street near the former textile mills that have been renovated into apartments and business space.

Some people, who did not want to give their names, said they don’t want to stay at a shelter or questioned whether the plan will actually come to fruition. Others said the focus needs to be on building more housing that is actually affordable.

Wright, who has epilepsy and is on Social Security Disability, said he and his 61-year-old girlfriend had been living in an apartment in Biddeford until their roommates stopped paying rent and they were all evicted. He and his girlfriend both have Social Security income, but haven’t been able to find an apartment they can afford.

A social worker who comes to the encampment told Wright how to get the proper documentation for his service dog to get into an apartment, but he said he can’t get a caseworker through her agency to help with the housing search because it is so busy.

“There’s just no housing right now,” he said.


Duane Dennison, 63, says he has been homeless for eight years and has been living in an encampment adjacent to Mechanics Park in Biddeford for five months. He said he’s heard talk before about a shelter and nothing came of it. “I feel good about it as long as it happens,” he said of the shelter opening next month at the Seeds of Hope Neighborhood Center. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Mick “Happy” Seaver, 69, said he moved to the encampment a couple of weeks ago with his roommate after they were evicted from their apartment. They had nowhere else to go, he said, but they’d consider going to the shelter.

“It would be nice to be under cover,” he said.

Duane Dennison, 63, who said he has been homeless for eight years, sees no reason not to go to the shelter. But he said he’s heard talk before about a shelter and nothing came of it.

“I feel good about it as long as it happens,” he said.

City councilors who support the plan said before voting that they are glad to see the city taking action.

“In my mind, it’s not just helping a few people,” Councilor Norman Belanger said. “We’re helping the community as a whole and showing compassion and dignity.”

Councilor Doris Ortiz said it is time for the city to finally step up and do something to tackle homelessness in the community.

“I don’t think we’ve really put the work into helping these neighbors of ours. It’s time for us to do that,” Ortiz said. “These are human beings. They deserve dignity.”

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