AUGUSTA — A unanimous Planning Board vote to allow Bridging the Gap to move its clothing bank, toiletries pantry and the Augusta Community Warming Center to an Eastern Avenue church in the vicinity of the Mayfair neighborhood now clears the way for the services relied upon by people in need to reopen June 2.

The Planning Board, following more than three hours of sometimes passionate debate, voted 6-0 late Tuesday night to allow the social services to relocate to the Emmanuel Lutheran Episcopal Church at 209 Eastern Ave. Social services are a conditional use in that zone, requiring Planning Board approval.

Several residents of the Mayfair neighborhood said they were concerned the move, in particular the arrival of the warming center, could bring homeless people into their neighborhood. A small percentage of those people, they said, could be dangerous to their children, who like to play outside in the neighborhood and on trails through the woods in the area.

Board members said they think concerns about safety potentially being compromised in Mayfair by the addition of a daytime, seasonal warming center are unfounded.

Peter Pare, board member, said he’s lived in Mayfair for 35 years, had three kids that played outside there, and now has five grandchildren who come play at his house. He said he won’t do anything differently when his grandchildren come there, and want to play outside, after the warming center moves to the church.

“I personally, as a resident and Planning Board member, don’t have any concerns about safety,” Pare said. “The people going to the warming center, those are people who need warmth, physically and socially. I don’t think the people who go in there are looking to create problems.”

More than 150 people attended the planning board meeting, overflowing from council chambers.

Opponents to the proposal said they’re not against helping people, and don’t think all homeless people are dangerous, but they don’t think the church property, near neighborhoods and trails that lead to not only Farrington Elementary but also Cony High School, is the right place to provide the services.

“I know that a lot of homeless people are good, but it would be unrealistic to think they’re all good,” said Sandi Spellman, of Windsor Avenue in the Mayfair neighborhood. “They’re not all good. I’d urge the board to consider that one little bit. That’s all it takes to disrupt a neighborhood. It’s a little kernel but it has a huge impact.”

Spellman said the city’s approval of the proposal should include a maximum capacity for the warming center.

Board conditions placed on their approval did not include that requirement. However board members did limit the social services to be offered at the site to only the clothing bank, toiletries pantry and warming center.

Sarah Miller, project director of Bridging the Gap, in comments similar to those Bridging the Gap posted on its Facebook page Wednesday, said the group appreciates what they described as the sincere concerns expressed by people at Tuesday night’s Planning Board meeting about safety in the neighborhood, and will work with neighbors to address their concerns.

“We appreciated the voices that came out last night and we’re looking forward to working collaboratively with our new neighbors, to make sure our new community is a safe, inviting place,” Miller said. “We’re grateful for the support and the people willing to speak their truths. We’re excited and looking forward to being good neighbors.”

Miller said Wednesday she and other workers and volunteers were moving items for the services into the church building, setting things up and getting systems and procedures for how the services will operate in the new location in place.

She said there is pent-up demand for the clothing and toiletries, including diapers, Addie’s Attic and Everyday Essentials provides to people and families in need.

“We’ve been getting calls every single day we’ve been closed,” Miller said of the unmet need for such items while the services were closed. “People have been asking, ‘Where else can I go?’”

The services have been closed since April 21, because their former home, in the St. Mark’s Parish Hall, has been sold.

Organizers plan to open both Addie’s Attic clothing bank, and Everyday Basics Essentials Pantry, June 2, with the operating hours still to be determined.

The services will be located in the rear of the Emmanuel Lutheran Episcopal Church building, accessible through a double door on the side of the building.

Miller said if people are in need of help connecting to resources before the local services reopen, they can call 248-1782 or 530-0184 for help.

Donations will be accepted before the services reopen, though donors should call ahead, at 248-1782. Miller said right now Addie’s is primarily seeking summer clothing.

Church members, users of the clothing bank and essentials pantry and regulars at the warming center, which is generally open from Dec. 1 to March 31, spoke out in favor of allowing the move.

Congregation member Steven Graham said if you were to see someone standing on a bridge, contemplating committing suicide and in danger, you wouldn’t stop to determine whether the person could be a pedophile, or had taken a candy bar when they were a child, before you’d try to help the person immediately.

“The warming center is a community resource,” he said. “If you need a place to spend an afternoon, if you’re hit with some kind of crisis in your life and don’t want to be alone, it’s a place you can go. Our doors will be open.”

Betty Balderston, president of the Emmanuel congregation, which sponsors the three social services organized as Bridging the Gap, said the congregation does so due to “our Christian responsibility to help those in need.”

She said the warming center is not a homeless shelter and is open only during the day in the winter, most of its users are not homeless, and they are no more likely to have mental health problems than the rest of the overall population.

She said Bridging the Gap has a set of guidelines for behavior at the warming center, a copy of which was provided to the Planning Board. They state if people do not follow the guidelines, they could be asked to leave for a period of time before returning on another day, and warning that repeated or serious infractions may result in longer periods of not being allowed there.

The guidelines include no violence, no hateful or threatening language, no possession of weapons, no swearing, and no possession of illicit drugs or alcohol.

Keith Edwards — 621-5647

[email protected]

Twitter: @kedwardskj

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