Sue Gayne, the church’s missions motivator, shows a former Sunday school classroom on Aug. 26 that would be renovated for use in the Augusta emergency overnight shelter planned at the South Parish Congregational Church in Augusta. The plan was approved by the Planning Board on Tuesday and drew no opposition from neighbors. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal file

AUGUSTA — Plans to open an emergency overnight homeless shelter at South Parish Congregational Church this winter have been approved by the Planning Board and faced no opposition from neighbors or anyone else.

The new shelter — funded for now by a combination of city American Rescue Plan Act and United Way of Kennebec Valley funds — is expected to be open November through April and be open every overnight, from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m., providing refuge from winter’s cold to anyone without a place to stay.

“Here in Augusta we believe there is a dire need for an emergency overnight shelter during the coldest times of the year, for people struggling, for whatever reasons, with homelessness,” the Rev. Nate Richards, pastor of the church at the intersection of Bridge, State, and Church streets, told the Augusta Planning Board on Tuesday. “We believe this is a basic need that needs to be met by every community. And we are offering a basic solution. It’s part of our mission to show kindness and compassion to others. We want to do this.”

No one spoke against the proposal, and Ward 1 City Councilor Linda Conti, whose ward includes the site, said she had not heard any comments from anyone in the neighborhood against the proposal.

She noted neighbors had plenty of concerns when, at a previous location at the former St. Mark’s Church, a daytime warming center combined with food, clothing and necessities banks drew crowds of people to the Summer and Pleasant streets area that prompted some neighbors to complain about the additional traffic in their neighborhood. But she’s hopeful that won’t happen at the new location.

“This is a bigger facility, bigger land space, more parking and they’re going to have two paid staffers there the whole time,” Conti said. “I agree there is a critical need for this service and very hopeful it’ll be a success at this location.”


Meanwhile, city officials said they’re working with the Office of the State Fire Marshal so the shelter can open in time for this winter without fully meeting life safety code requirements, as long as other safety-oriented steps take place there.

Rob Overton, the city’s director of code enforcement, said ultimately the portion of the building where the overnight shelter will be will require a sprinkler system, and other changes, to meet code requirements.

He acknowledged “it would be a tall task to bring it up to code,” but said he and Fire Chief David Groder are working with state officials on a “common sense approach about what we’d require of this building, until it can be brought into full compliance with the life safety code.”

Those requirements include that a certain number of staff members are at the building whenever it is open, that they undergo training and have cellphones on them at all times in case they need to call for help in an emergency, and the installation of interconnected smoke detectors.

“I’m confident that prior to this building being used for this very urgent need, both my office and the Augusta Fire Department will be satisfied that the people in there will be safe,” Overton said.

The South Parish Congregational Church in Augusta will house an overnight shelter for homeless people beginning in November. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal file

City Manager Susan Robertson said last month, when councilors discussed the proposal, a sprinkler system would be required to provide sleeping pads so people could sleep at the shelter. But she said they didn’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.


Councilors since approved the use of $124,000 in federal ARPA funding to open and help fund the first year of operations for the new shelter.

The site 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.

Michael Mitchell, chief executive officer of Crisis and Counseling, the state’s largest crisis services provider, said people dealing with mental health and/or substance use concerns are often also struggling with homelessness, and vice versa. He said treating people when they are in crisis, exacerbated by them not having a place to spend the night, is more difficult and more expensive than if that person could have been helped earlier. He spoke strongly in favor of the new, low-barrier shelter in Augusta.

“This project is an example of how this community can respond to a very real need when people need it, and not be excluded by criteria that is part of why they’re there in the first place,” he said.

Sarah Miller, administrative director of Bridging the Gap, which offers a daytime warming center and clothing and necessities bank in their space at another Augusta church, Emmanuel Lutheran Episcopal Church, said the new overnight shelter is a great need as social service providers have increasingly had no place to offer some unhoused people looking for a safe, warm place for the night.

She said many times Bridging the Gap staff could do nothing more than offer sleeping bags and blankets to unhoused people with nowhere else to go, or gas cards so they could run their car heaters all night, because their car was their home.

“These are clearly not acceptable solutions, for the person seeking assistance or the service providers trying to help,” she said. She added that the new shelter will free up time for social service providers to work to address longer-term needs of people, rather than spend so much time trying to find them a safe place for a night.

The shelter will be in a wing of the church property, adjacent to Bridge Street, and have its own entrance on that side of the building.

Shelter staff will work as employees of the church.

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