City councilors are considering a proposal to turn the basement of the South Parish Congregational Church in Augusta into an overnight shelter for unhoused people. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal

AUGUSTA — On some nights last winter, the best that social service providers could do for an unhoused person who came to them seeking a warm place to spend the night in Augusta was offer them a tent and a sleeping bag and send them back outside.

This coming winter, with two new overnight shelters being considered in the city, they hope to offer unhoused people a safe place to spend cold nights.

City councilors expressed strong support Thursday for a proposal to use $124,000 in federal American Rescue Plan Act funds received by the city to help pay for the creation of a new emergency overnight shelter in the basement of South Parish Congregational Church.

The site, at the corner of State and Bridge streets, would be low-barrier, meaning people sometimes turned away from other shelters, such as family shelters, because they are actively using alcohol or other substances, have mental health problems or have a criminal background, would be able to spend the night there.

If city councilors approve of the use of a portion of the city’s federal ARPA money to help cover the start-up and first year of operating costs for the proposed shelter, it could open Nov. 1 and remain open through the end of April, from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. each day, according to Sarah Miller, a leader of efforts to start the shelter. Miller is the executive director of Bridging the Gap, a nonprofit group that runs a daytime winter warming center at another Augusta church, Emmanuel Lutheran Episcopal Church.

Councilors aren’t expected to vote on the proposal until Sept. 1, but on Thursday night said they hope the plan would provide refuge for people who, the last two winters in Augusta, have been unable to find shelter on some nights because of a lack of space or because they don’t meet eligibility requirements for existing shelters.


“We know we’ve had a gap in this kind of coverage for more than two years,” Ward 2 Councilor Kevin Judkins said. “For the first time, I feel a sense of relief. If anybody in the city doesn’t think this is a good use of our money, I’d invite them to grab their sleeping bag and pull up a piece of sidewalk, down on Water Street, in the middle of January and then, once you’ve gone through the night, tell me we shouldn’t have done this.”

The shelter would have a director and at least two people working overnights, who would be employees of South Parish Congregational Church.

Sue Gayne, the church’s missions motivator, shows a former Sunday school classroom Friday that would be renovated for use in the Augusta emergency overnight shelter proposed for South Parish Congregational Church in Augusta. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal

The shelter’s proposed creation grew, Miller said, out of conversations held over the past few years, including among members of an area housing task force. She said service providers on the task force noticed that some nights there has been no safe space to direct unhoused people to, either because there was no space available or they didn’t qualify for existing shelters. She said the problem became more noticeable over the past two winters when, if shelter space was not available in Augusta, they would work to send unhoused people to an overnight shelter in Waterville, though finding transportation was problematic. Other options were to pay for hotel rooms for them; direct them to the police station lobby or a hospital emergency department; or send them back out the door with a sleeping bag and tent in hopes they could get through the night.

Miller anticipates between 12 and 20 people would use the new shelter on an average night.

The proposal would also be funded with a $30,000 grant from the United Way of Kennebec Valley.

“The overnight emergency warming center in Augusta is something that the community has needed for a number of years, and South Parish has unutilized space in the building that is perfect for the center,” the Rev. Nathan Richards, pastor of South Parish Congregational Church, said in a news release from the United Way. “Over the past couple of winters, I didn’t have an answer for people who came in the evenings with no place to go except for back out into the freezing temperatures.”


The proposed new shelter could be one of two to open in Augusta.

Susan Robertson, city manager, said city officials met recently with representatives of Bread of Life Ministries who said they, too, are looking at opening a low-barrier shelter, on Boothby Street in Augusta. The organization currently runs both a family and veterans homeless shelter on Hospital Street in Augusta.

Sue Gayne, the church’s missions motivator, shows a former Sunday school classroom Friday that would be renovated for use in the Augusta emergency overnight shelter proposed for South Parish Congregational Church in Augusta. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal

Bread of Life officials could not immediately be reached Friday for details on what they may propose for an overnight homeless shelter.

Robertson said that proposal is early in development. She said the two proposed new overnight shelters would be different from each other, with Bread of Life’s in a smaller space and having more structured programming, and the South Parish shelter in a larger space where attendees could simply stay the night and not take part in other services, though they could be offered access to other services if they wish.

This former Sunday school classroom would be renovated for use as part of an Augusta emergency overnight shelter proposed for the basement of South Parish Congregational Church in Augusta. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal

“We’ve got to keep in mind that people who are unhoused are not one category (of people), so if we have something at Bread of Life, it’s a little different, and if we have something at South Parish, that’s a little different,” said Ward 4 Councilor Eric Lind. “We can at least cast that net wide and far and save people. That’s the thing, right? I heard this today from a trustee at South Parish who said, ‘We’ve got this big building, we’re heating it, let’s get people in it because we don’t want them freezing to death.’ I’m completely in favor of pushing this forward as fast as we can, because before we know it winter is going to be here. We just need to save people, that’s the bottom line. We need to get them off the street.”

One problem for the new shelter could be the space’s current lack of a sprinkler system to extinguish fires. Robertson said a sprinkler system would be required to provide sleeping pads so people could sleep in there. But she said they don’t yet know whether a sprinkler system will be able to be installed in time for this winter. She said if one isn’t, the shelter may only be able to provide chairs, not sleeping pads, and serve as more of a drop-in center than a place for people to sleep.

Miller said the shelter organizers don’t plan to come to the city again next year to seek funding to run the shelter. She said the director to be hired to run the shelter will work year-round and have, as part of the job, responsibility to raise funds for the shelter, including through seeking grants.

Miller said families with children would not use the emergency overnight shelter, as other housing would be arranged for them elsewhere.

City officials anticipate Augusta will receive about $2 million, over two years, in federal ARPA funds. Other uses of the funds, so far, have included employee bonuses, covering revenue losses at the Augusta Civic Center and public safety equipment upgrades.

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