AUGUSTA — Some residents of the city’s Mayfair neighborhood say they’re concerned by a proposal to allow a clothing bank, a toiletries pantry and the Augusta Community Warming Center to relocate to an Eastern Avenue church.

Neighbors told the Augusta Planning Board on Tuesday night that they worry about the safety of children in the large, residential area, parts of which are a short distance through the woods from the site. In particular, they said, they are concerned about the warming center, which is open during the day in cold months.

The Planning Board postponed a decision on whether to allow the move, planned by the social services organization Bridging the Gap. Neighbors told board members the move could draw homeless people with substance abuse or mental health problems to the Mayfair neighborhood, potentially putting their children — who like to walk and play on trails through the woods in the area that also lead to Farrington Elementary School — at risk of violence.

“So you’ve got children out there (on trails in and around Mayfair) and homeless people coming and going,” said Andrew Robinson, of Windsor Avenue, who stressed that he is not against churches, homeless people, or people with mental illness. “Our neighborhood hasn’t had this exposure, to deal with (people with) mental health challenges like that. If you’re going to do something like that, it’s good to help others, but you’ve got to think about children and people. My biggest question is if you’re going to help the homeless, how are you going to do it and how are you going to keep my children safe? There has got to be a balance.”

Multiple board members said they felt the question of Bridging the Gap’s services being allowed at Emmanuel Lutheran Episcopal Church, at 209 Eastern Ave., should be part of a larger discussion. And they said the entire Mayfair neighborhood, some of which is about a mile away, should be notified about the issue before a final decision is made.

Betty Balderston, president of the Emmanuel congregation, which sponsors the three social services organized as Bridging the Gap, said the warming center is open only during the day in the winter, most of its users are not homeless, and they simply reflect the overall population of the city.

Its former location had no incidents requiring police to be called during its last season of operation, and a majority of the users of the services that provide people in need with clothing and toiletries are women and children, many of them who came to Maine from other countries and need help establishing themselves in the community, according to Balderston.

She said last year a total of 250 people visited the warming center, only 55 of whom were homeless. The rest, she said, come to socialize with others in a safe, warm place.

“Yes, we do have some people who come who have mental health issues, but we see them elsewhere in the city, too,” Balderston said. “The warming center provides a place for people to go, so they’re not wandering the streets, not going into businesses, so they have a warm, safe place to go. They are free to come and go, just as anybody else is in the city. There are a lot of regulars there who are not necessarily homeless. We’ve got one woman, in her 80s, who comes so she isn’t home alone by herself. Sometimes she takes naps there. She’s in a safe place with people who watch out for her. There is a certain amount of self-policing that goes on with the group.”

She said usually 30 to 35 people come to the warming center over the course of a typical day. The center is open 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. seven days a week from Dec. 1 to March 31.

Board members, who after an hour and a half of debate Tuesday night voted 7-1 to postpone ruling on the proposal until their May 22 meeting, said the issue should be the topic of a larger community discussion.

“I think it needs a greater conversation, because I think this is a city issue, not just your issue,” said Peter Pare, a board member who lives in the area.

Pare said he isn’t fearful of people who would use the warming center coming to the neighborhood. “I support tabling it for a greater discussion, at least get more people involved, because I think it’s a bigger issue,” he said.

Board member Corey Vose said the city should notify the entire Mayfair neighborhood about the proposal, not just residents who live within 500 feet of the site. Betsy Poulin, deputy city planner, said the city ordinance specifies that threshold for notifying neighbors to a conditional use project. However, other board members also said they thought the city should notify residents of the larger area around the proposal before the next meeting. Vose said if he didn’t hear the views of more neighborhood residents about the proposal, he would vote against it allowing it.

Vose said a recent Portland Press Herald story about problems in the Bayside neighborhood of Portland, around the Preble Street Resource Center and an overnight homeless shelter on Oxford Street point out the potential problems that can develop when users of social services overwhelm a neighborhood.

Sandi Spellman, of Windsor Avenue, said neighbors she talked to who had gotten a notification from the city about the public hearing on the proposal didn’t understand that the proposal was for a warming center. She, too, expressed concern for the safety of neighborhood children who might encounter people using the warming center, such as when they walk through woods that make up her backyard to the local convenience store.

“I don’t necessarily want people I don’t know, homeless people, in my backyard,” she said. “We don’t know who is being bused into our neighborhood. I urge the board to dig deeper into this, and find out about the people that will be there.”

A. Delaine Nye, the board member who voted against postponing the proposal, said she lives on the end of Fairview Avenue, which is closest to the church site, and she is not afraid of who might come to the warming center. She noted many of the users of Addie’s Attic clothing Bank and Everyday Basics Essentials Pantry are women and children from foreign countries who need help with needs, such as winter clothing, when they come to Maine.

“I’m thinking of the women and children and those people who are cold in their homes because they can’t afford heat,” Nye said. “I imagine they use the warming center too. I think we need to be careful we don’t turn our back on people who have greater needs than we have. Some of us who don’t know these people personally, we have a fear of them that is misplaced.”

Balderston said Addie’s Attic provided clothing to more than 700 households in 2017. She said 65 percent of the users of Everyday Essentials pantry, which provides toiletries not available through the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, were new Mainers, and 70 percent were women or children.

Balderston said the clothing bank and essentials pantry are currently closed because Bridging the Gap’s former location, St. Mark’s parish hall, and the adjacent church are being sold. She said delaying the board decision will mean users of those services will have to go without the free clothing, toiletries and other items it provides.

She said they’ve looked at 10 locations and have yet to find another suitable location.

“Is it the perfect place? Probably not,” she said, “but our congregation feels this is our last resort in the city. If we can’t reopen the programs here, we feel they may not reopen in the city of Augusta.”

Board members, including Nye, Pare and Vose, expressed concern about transportation for users of the services to and from the site, which is about a mile from Cony Circle.

Sarah Miller, executive director of Bridging the Gap, has said the site is along an existing, hourly, route of the Kennebec Explorer bus, and they plan to talk to the Kennebec Valley Community Action Program, the provider of the bus service, about potentially providing users of the services rides to and from the proposed new Bridging the Gap location.

The bus service, however, doesn’t run on weekends.

Keith Edwards — 621-5647

[email protected]

Twitter: @kedwardskj

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