People take shelter from the rain in a doorway at South Parish Congregational Church in Augusta last November as they line up to wait for beds. Officials recently voted to use up to $180,000 in pandemic relief funds to allow the 30-bed facility to stay open for a month longer than last year, starting Oct. 15. Andy Molloy/Kennebec Journal file

AUGUSTA — City councilors approved using up to $180,000 in pandemic relief funds to reopen the Augusta Overnight Emergency Warming Center for a second winter of providing shelter to local people who are homeless.

The funding will allow it to operate for seven months, from Oct. 15 until May 15 — one month longer than last year.

Councilors last week expressed support for the overnight shelter but declined to provide funding for it in hopes the state would come forward with grant funds to help cover the center’s costs. They continued to express frustration Thursday with what they said is a lack of state funding to help homeless people.

Homelessness is not bound by municipal borders and is a problem that should be addressed, and funded, at the state and federal level, not thrust upon municipalities, officials said.

“I’d like the state to be the lead and us be the supplementers, and I really hope, if people are listening and they’re concerned about the homeless situation and the problems that are coming from that, they need to contact their state representatives, their state senators and anybody they know at the state and federal level because the city is picking up the slack for something we really shouldn’t have to be bearing alone,” said Ward 1 Councilor Linda Conti. “I’d really encourage you to reach out for more resources at a higher level — that’s the best thing you can do to help us.”

Last week, City Manager Susan Robertson said overnight warming center officials submitted a proposal to the city in which they estimated it would cost $232,000 to open and run the center for seven months, with just under $180,000 of that coming from the city and the rest from other sources. To run the shelter for six months would cost $202,000, with $148,000 of city funding.


Cots are seen in October 2022 during a tour of the Augusta Overnight Emergency Warming Center in the South Parish Congregational Church in Augusta. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal file

The Augusta Overnight Emergency Warming Center was open from Nov. 1 through the end of April, during its inaugural year last winter. It operates out of the South Parish Congregational Church on Church Street.

Julia Stone, director of the warming center, said last winter the 30-bed facility regularly had 40 or more people staying overnight, with some sleeping on the floor in sleeping bags because there were not enough cots for everyone. She said a majority of its overnight guests came from the local area, though it was hard to tell because some didn’t want to reveal where they had come from.

Robertson said the city had $521,000 in remaining ARPA funds. However, also on Thursday, councilors unanimously approved the use of $114,000 of those funds to cover increased overtime for more downtown police patrols.

An increased police presence downtown was first targeted for funding in July after several downtown business owners and residents said they and some of their customers felt unsafe, in part due to problems they said were associated with an increased number of homeless people downtown, including some who had been camping out illegally in the Mill Park area.

The downtown police patrols will continue until June 30, 2024, after councilors again heard from business owners and residents the city needed to take action to prevent problems downtown including littering, begging, threatening passersby, open use of illegal drugs and people sleeping by building entrances.

Resident Leif Dahlin, the city’s retired former community services director, spoke in favor of funding both the increased downtown police patrols and overnight warming center.

“I know you guys are caught between a rock and a hard place on these issues,” Dahlin told city officials Thursday.

He said he sympathizes with people who are homeless but Mill Park, which he said is strewn with trash from homeless campers, is not an appropriate place for them to stay.

“I submit we’re doing those folks a disservice by allowing them to stay there,” he said, “and it’s also doing we the taxpayers a disservice by allowing that to happen.”

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