Augusta officials are considering establishing a spot where homeless people can pitch tents and camp after the city’s overnight emergency warming center closes for the season. Ward 1 Councilor Linda Conti proposed using this grassy field bounded by the Kennebec Valley YMCA, Augusta Police Department, Capitol Park and a state office building in Augusta. The site was a sports venue for Cony High School in the 1900s and a trotting park in the 1800s. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal

AUGUSTA — City councilors are considering whether to establish a location where the growing number of homeless people in Augusta can pitch tents and camp.

When the city’s overnight emergency warming center closes for the season on Monday, many of its users will be left without a place to sleep.

But some fear that if Augusta establishes a campsite, the city’s resources could be overwhelmed by an influx of homeless people from other parts of the state, such as Bangor and Portland, where encampments are at risk of being shut down over health and safety concerns.

In an emotionally charged discussion, councilors failed to reach a consensus Thursday night as a group of homeless people looked on from the audience. Councilors asked city staff to continue working with nonprofit partner agencies to try to find solutions and will meet again in two weeks to talk about the pressing issue some more.

Currently, city ordinances do not allow camping on any city property.

Ward 2 City Councilor Kevin Judkins proposed the city create a “Project Homestead” to find a plot of land where people with no other option for housing could stay, with services such as porta-potties and trash bins. The site could be on city-owned land, or on private or state-owned property, if an agreement can be reached.


Judkins said the proposal is a stop-gap effort to address the problem while officials ponder longer-term solutions.

Ward 2 Councilor Kevin Judkins speaks Tuesday during a listening session with homeless people at Lithgow Public Library in Augusta. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal file

Ward 1 Councilor Linda Conti said it was upsetting and Kafkaesque that the Augusta Overnight Emergency Warming Center recently held a fundraiser to collect donations of tents and other supplies to give to homeless people who had been staying there when there is nowhere in the city for them to camp. She said having an established area would be better than having people camp wherever they can find a hidden spot. It would also save city police from having to evict them if people complained.

“Why don’t we say, ‘This is a place you can go, and if you stay here we’ll leave you alone,'” Conti said.

She suggested using the ballfields across from the Augusta Police Station, which are near the Kennebec Valley YMCA and in the shadow of the state Capitol. She said the campsite should be visible for state officials because the state should be helping Augusta deal with the problem of homelessness.

City Manager Susan Robertson said one potential site would be the largely unused lower parking lot at the Augusta Civic Center. The city also has land off Boothby Street and foreclosed on a Northern Avenue property that could be considered. She warned if the city creates a campsite, it is bound to draw some complaints from people who do not want it there.

Some councilors, and Mayor Mark O’Brien, expressed concern about the proposal.


“With the things happening in other communities, that was just on the news tonight, I feel that the few folks we have in Augusta now that are trying to cope with life will grow exponentially if Augusta finds a place for these folks to …  live for the few months they’re able to be outside,” said Ward 3 Councilor Mike Michaud. “I’d love to find a solution. I wish there was more housing, I wish there was something we could do to help everybody. But I just am scared to death this may snowball and get larger and we have folks from other communities coming to Augusta and then it may be creating a much larger issue for us to handle.”

Officials are considering designating the Augusta Civic Center’s lower parking lot as an area where homeless people can pitch tents and camp after the city’s overnight emergency warming center closes for the season. Camping is currently prohibited on city property. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal

The city’s overnight warming center, which officials established last year to prevent people from freezing to death outside, has roughly 35 beds. It has been at capacity most nights since it opened, and served 80 different individuals for at least one night in March.

Officials from nonprofit agencies that help homeless people, Bread of Life Ministries and Bridging the Gap, sent letters to the city expressing concern about establishing a campsite for homeless people. Citing these letters, Ward 4 Councilor Eric Lind said city government doesn’t have the resources, skills or experience to take on that role. He said allowing people to camp out without trying to direct them to resources — such as help addressing substance use or mental illness, or finding permanent housing — might not be moving people forward. He suggested the city follow the leaders of nonprofit agencies with expertise in helping homeless people.

Earl Kingsbury, whose job as community services director includes oversight of the city’s general assistance program, said a goal in helping homeless people is to guide them into case management  to address the problems that are contributing to them being homeless.

He said when city, Bread of Life and other officials, as well as the owner of the Edwards Inn boarding house, went to the Augusta Overnight Emergency Warming Center this week to meet with about 20 people who have been staying there this winter, they were able to help eight people. Five could stay at the Edwards facility, and Bread of Life officials could work with three others to find housing.

He encouraged homeless people to reach out to Bread of Life and to the city’s general assistance office for help.

Robertson said city staff have been working on how to help homeless people since at least last fall.  She said they will continue working with local nonprofit service providers to try to find ways to help.

Some councilors suggested forming a committee to work on the issue, but others said that would take too long.

“I think committees are where things go to die,” At-Large Councilor Courtney Gary-Allen said. “I think if we’re not going to do something today, then the (city) staff and nonprofits will figure it out. But if someone could please provide me with a list of places where people can put up their tents Monday morning at 7 a.m., that’d be great.”

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