Edwin Unman, 53, pauses while packing his tent site on Sept. 6 as Portland police and city employees clear a homeless encampment at the Fore River Parkway Trail. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Westbrook City Councilor Jennifer Munro has heard the rumors around town that a big homeless shelter is in the works or that one could be plunked down in any neighborhood.

Neither of them are true, but they stem from discussions about increased homelessness in the community and a proposal from Munro to change local zoning to allow small shelters to open if or when someone steps forward with a plan. Current zoning prohibits shelters.

“There are not people out there who want to run shelters here,” Munro said. “I’m paving a path forward for if someone wants to.”

Westbrook is among the Maine communities having tough conversations about what they can do – and what their responsibility is – to address a crisis that has pushed more people into homelessness and overwhelmed existing shelters. For years, nearly all of the resources in southern Maine for people who are homeless, including shelters, have been based in Portland.

But as homelessness has become more common in other towns and cities, municipal officials and other local leaders have grappled with how to help.

In some communities, like South Portland, policy changes centered on rezoning to allow shelters. In others, including Biddeford, the focus has largely been on supporting and incentivizing construction of housing. And in Sanford, where an influx of asylum seekers last spring overwhelmed the city, municipal staff and nonprofit agencies teamed up to connect homeless people with existing resources.


Talk often turns to the lack of available shelter beds, as it has now in Westbrook. While these conversations recognize that homelessness isn’t just a Portland problem, the likelihood of additional shelters opening in the region is slim.

“I think it’s great that municipalities are thinking a little differently and looking to see how they can contribute to solutions,” said Mark Swann, executive director of Preble Street. “The pandemic certainly called out the need for more shelter beds, more geographic spread of shelters, different types of shelters and even a different way of sheltering people.”

But, Swann said, there isn’t a long line of nonprofits clamoring to open shelters because of the expense of running them. With little public funding available, most shelters have to raise around 70% of their funding through private donations, he said.

The Westbrook City Council forwarded to the planning board a proposal to change the zoning ordinance to allow shelters for eight to 10 people. The changes, if ultimately approved by the Council, would not allow for large shelters like the 208-bed Homeless Services Center on Riverside Street operated by the City of Portland.

“Westbrook’s current ordinance prohibiting overnight shelters is an example of a legal barrier that blocks an essential community housing tool that could help Westbrook residents find short-term stability while they work towards long-term permanent housing,” Victoria Morales, executive director of the Quality Housing Coalition, told city councilors last month before the vote to send the proposal to the planning board.



On the coldest days last winter, Scott Linscott, lead pastor of First Baptist Church in Westbrook, loaded up a van with sleeping bags, donated boots, clothing and camp stoves and drove to small encampments of homeless people. When he opened the hatch, people would swarm to get what they needed, he said.

“It was heartbreaking,” he said.

The people who were living in campsites much smaller and less visible than the large encampments in downtown Portland are only the tip of the iceberg in Westbrook, he said.

“Beyond that, there are all the people who are homeless who are crammed into hotels, sleeping on friends’ and relatives’ couches, crammed two families into a house,” Linscott said. “It’s an issue our entire community needs to wake up to.”

While homelessness in Westbrook doesn’t necessarily look the same as in Portland, more people seem to be aware of the problem than a few years ago, said Megan Perry, the community police coordinator with Westbrook police.  She attributes that in part to more people knowing someone who has struggled to maintain housing, has lost an apartment or who is currently homeless.

It is a challenge to help people understand the complexities of homelessness in towns and cities that have not traditionally been service centers for people seeking shelter beds, advocates say.


“I think when people hear unhoused or homeless, there is a lot of fear in that,” said Liz McLellan, co-chair of the Westbrook Housing Coalition. “It’s a challenge to try to make housed people in Westbrook see how much of an issue it is in Westbrook.”

The housing coalition formed late last year out of concern for hundreds of residents at risk of becoming homeless as federal emergency rental assistance ran out. The city has 1,600 housing units in the pipeline – including affordable, workforce and senior housing – but coalition members worried about what would happen in the meantime.

People from Westbrook who become homeless often go to Portland for services or to try to get into a shelter, but many fall through the cracks, McLellan said.

The coalition’s early work focused on providing resources to people outdoors during winter, developing a network of residents willing to provide emergency shelter in their homes and advocating for homeless and housing initiatives at the state level. It also stepped in to help in ways that agencies aren’t able to because of restrictions on their funding, McLellan said.

They raised money to get a father and daughter off the streets and into a hotel until they found permanent housing. They paid back rent for a single mother with two children so she didn’t lose her apartment. They’ve helped people connect to existing resources.

But coalition members also realized they needed to advocate for zoning changes, like the one being considered now. Other communities also dealing with more homelessness already have made some changes.



In South Portland, where multiple hotels were used as temporary shelters during the pandemic, zoning was changed to allow accessory dwelling units and to allow homeless shelters in certain areas. The city capped the number of people who can be sheltered in the city at 200 and set a maximum of 100 people per shelter. Shelters for up to seven people are allowed in any residential zone.

The Lewiston City Council has been looking at various proposals related to homeless shelters, transitional housing and affordable housing projects, but those conversations have led to little consensus on how to address homelessness in the state’s second largest city. The Council passed a six-month moratorium on new homeless shelters and approved a measure that restricts where shelters can be built.

In June, the Council voted against a license for a new shelter because of concerns about its funding. Two months later, it voted against an ordinance that would have expanded homeless shelter regulations to include transitional housing.

Last spring, when dozens of asylum seeking families arrived in Sanford on the same day, city staff were quickly overwhelmed by requests for General Assistance. From the outset, city officials said it was not possible or sustainable to set up an emergency shelter. But with the help of community partners, they got families into local motels, connected to programs to help with food and housing, and enrolled children in schools.

That collaborative work turned into a coalition of municipal staff, police, social service agencies and others in the community who meet regularly to coordinate the response to homelessness in a county with only 39 shelter beds. Their work is aimed at helping both asylum seekers and others in the community who are homeless.


“They are a model that many people are learning from,” Westbrook Councilor Claude Rwaganje told his fellow councilors last month. “They impressed everybody that within a month and a half they were able to find apartments and housing for more than 30 families.”

In recent months, Sanford approved new rules to license shelters, though there are no plans for a low-barrier overnight shelter like the ones in Portland. The city already has multiple small family shelters run by local agencies.

Ian Houseal, Sanford’s director of community development, said that while individual communities may be doing things like changing zoning or licenses, a more regional approach is critical to address homelessness.

“Homelessness gets borne out on a local level, but it’s a regional- and state-level issue,” he said.

Westbrook Mayor Michael Foley agrees.

“This shouldn’t be a community-to-community problem,” Foley said.


Before the proposal for shelter zoning, Westbrook was already supporting programs to address homelessness, Foley said. The city allocated $100,000 in the last budget cycle for homeless initiatives, including support for Portland’s emergency shelter at the Expo and contributions to the Greater Portland Council of Governments.

Beyond that, the city has supported the development of housing projects and continues to look at ways to build more housing in the downtown area. But when it comes to shelters, Foley isn’t sure that’s the way to go.

“I firmly believe we shouldn’t open any shelters as a community unless we have a regional approach,” he said. “You build it and they will come.”

Homelessness and the lack of resources is a problem across communities and is “not a problem we can or do expect Portland to solve on their own,” Councilor David Morse said when the Council first discussed the shelter proposal.

“If there are groups working to try to put a roof over unhoused people in this community, we should do everything we can to be a partner for them, and not just point to the border and send them to Portland,” he said.

Munro, another city councilor, said it’s important for the city to have conversations about what can be done to address homelessness in the community while also working on the issue at the regional and state level.

“People are concerned, and they want to make sure that Westbrook is part of the solution,” she said.

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