AUGUSTA — A desire to get homeless people off the streets at least for the next few winter months has multiple entities in Augusta and Waterville looking to partner up with a hotel to provide supervised emergency housing.

The Mid-Maine Homeless Shelter in Waterville is doing that now, providing between 24 and 30 hotel rooms at a Waterville hotel to between 50 to 100 people, mostly families with young children and people with compromised health who are especially vulnerable to COVID-19. They include 15 rooms occupied by previously unhoused people who had been staying at hotels in Augusta, before those hotels stopped working with agencies providing emergency rental assistance. The program uses funds from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Mid-Main also operates a 55-bed homeless shelter on Colby Street where single people are housed.

But the arrangement between Mid-Maine, FEMA and the hotel is expected to expire at the end of January. Katie Spencer White, chief executive officer of Mid-Maine Homeless Shelter, said they don’t have a place for anyone still staying at that hotel by the end of January to go.

Mid-Maine Homeless Shelter Executive Director Katie Spencer White speaks about the Waterville shelter on Jan. 14. Rich Abrahamson/Morning Sentinel file

So they’re more than interested in working with Augusta-area officials, who were already looking to find a way to provide more emergency housing for an increasing number of homeless people in Augusta.

Thursday night, advocates for organizations helping the homeless outlined to Augusta city councilors a potential solution that could help provide short-term housing targeted at homeless people now living in and around both Augusta and Waterville.

“In my view, looking at Augusta, we are ripe for collaboration; I’d love to see this be a multi-agency partnership,” White told Augusta city councilors, officials from Augusta-based Bread of Life Ministries, which runs homeless shelters for veterans and families, and others. “I think everybody who is a shelter provider is mission-driven, and our goal is to save as many people as possible. A lot of us have written in our offices somewhere ‘Nobody is going to die this winter on our watch.’ It’s something that keeps us up at night, trying to figure out how we can do more, with less.”

White and Earl Kingsbury, Augusta’s director of community services, said an Augusta hotel has expressed interest in an arrangement in which homeless agencies would house clients there. Particularly if, like the hotel in Waterville, those clients are supervised by Mid-Maine staff at the site who are available 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Officials have said having agency staff on hand at the hotels gives clients there direct access to services and provides supervision that can help prevent behavioral problems that could sour the hotels’ relationships with tenants receiving rental assistance.

White said there have been multiple hotels across the state where FEMA funds were used to provide shelter to unhoused people, including in Bangor, Lewiston and Portland, but those hotel options are closing. She said in 2020, with COVID-19 travel restrictions in place, many hotels were happy to have the revenues and clients the FEMA arrangement provided. But now that more people are traveling, regular hotel bookings have increased and many hotels are increasingly uninterested in continuing the arrangements with agencies to provide emergency housing to homeless people.

She suggested striking a deal with the Augusta hotel, which officials did not identify, that has expressed interest in a contract to provide rooms to unhoused people. The deal could provide a place for Augusta-area homeless people to stay and house clients staying at the Waterville hotel, when the arrangement expires Jan. 31, through February and March.

The FEMA funding for such programs, due to an order signed by President Joe Biden, is guaranteed to be available through March 31, White said. However, that funding has not yet been secured for the proposal for the Waterville and Augusta entities to partner on a shelter.

“Ideally if we can make it work here in Augusta, with a hotel, and getting the funding seems to be the biggest part of it right now, if we can make that work for February and March, we can begin partnering with Mid-Maine shelter for some of the unhoused folks here in Augusta,” Kingsbury said. “Knowing that, when their contract runs out, in Waterville, they can transition to Augusta, and we can get folks through the winter and into the spring.”

Holding her white cane, Robin Oviatt stands outside her shelter on Nov. 11 at her rented campsite in Augusta. The blue tarp covers pop-up canopies with a tent inside under them. She lost her apartment in March. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal file

Robin Oviatt, an Augusta woman who is disabled and has multiple health problems, has been living in a tent since she was evicted from an apartment in March. She has not been able to find a place to rent she can afford since then. On Friday, she said Augusta officials should have taken action long ago to help provide both temporary and long-term housing to area homeless people. She said instead of helping homeless people, the city has made homelessness a crime by kicking homeless people out of makeshift campsites. And she said so-called affordable housing projects in the city have had rents too high for low-income people to be able to afford.

“They could have dealt with it long ago, instead you have police terrorize them and keep them walking the streets 24-7,” Oviatt said. “It’s been happening for a long time, and they know it. They’re trying to force the undesirable people out.”

She said government officials should have used their ability to requisition buildings to provide space, such as inside the vacant former KMart building, where homeless people could stay the night, even if it was just in a sleeping bag on a mat on the floor.

Oviatt strongly expressed her concerns to councilors Thursday night.

Mayor David Rollins said her point was well taken, she was heard, and “I think you’ve had an effect on everybody sitting here.”

Laura Briggs, shelter director at Bread of Life Ministries’ shelter on Hospital Street in Augusta, said the organization has new leadership and as part of that has been able to house more people than it could previously. She said recently they’ve seen an influx of single men at the shelter, prompting them to alter the layout of the shelter to be able to accommodate more of them. She the shelter is also able to provide families staying there with their own rooms.

White said a shelter bed is probably one of the most expensive interventions to help deal with homelessness, costing just over $2,000 a month to fund a shelter bed, substantially more than the rent for a one-bedroom apartment would be, if apartments can be found to rent during the current housing shortage.

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