Joshua Lukens, 24, left, and his fiancee, Tessa, 23, use an eight-person tent Wednesday to shelter themselves and their belongings along the Kennebec River, near Head of Falls in Waterville. Lukens says he has been homeless for about five months. The city is considering a plan to set up 10 yurts in the area to shelter homeless people during winter. Rich Abrahamson/Morning Sentinel

WATERVILLE — City officials are expected to consider an emergency plan this week to buy 10 yurts to house homeless people this winter who live near the RiverWalk at Head of Falls, a move that Mayor Jay Coelho said could serve as a model for other communities.

“Waterville can lead the way and teach other people how to do it the right way,” Coelho said Tuesday.

Coelho spoke after a lengthy City Council meeting at which advocates for the homeless and hungry urged councilors to immediately help fund the Waterville Area Soup Kitchen and the Winslow Community Cupboard, and said both are struggling financially as the need for food has increased significantly this year.

Councilors explained that a process for funding outside organizations is now in the application stage, and they could not immediately fund those two groups without being unfair to others that have applied.

Todd Stevens, a community outreach coordinator hired this year by the Waterville Police Department, later pitched to the council an emergency request to buy four-season yurts. In his work, Stevens helps connect people who are struggling with the resources they need.

Stevens, a social worker, said he has spent the last six months gaining the trust of homeless people living in encampments around Waterville. He asked that the city spend up to $10,000 for 10 yurts — sturdy canvas tents — to help house about 40 people living on the trail near Head of Falls, off Front Street.


The proposal would include some type of heating and a fence with a gate that police and other emergency officials could enter to help with medical incidents or other situations. Four people would be assigned to each yurt.

Stevens, Coelho and Councilor Flavia DeBrito, D-Ward 2, have been attending discussions at the soup kitchen to explore short- and long-term solutions for housing homeless people, and yurts were considered as an option.

Housing people in yurts for the winter would allow the city to buy time to try to discuss longer-term solutions in the spring, officials said, noting that homeless people are part of the community and deserve help.

“We don’t want to be the town that keeps pushing people somewhere else,” Coelho said.

Councilor Claude Francke, D-Ward 6, applauded Stevens for his work, but objected to spending money for the yurts without further discussion of the plan to make sure it is the right one.

“I, frankly, think that while it is starting to get cold, that this is another matter that should be processed in proper subcommittees before being sprung on council at the last second,” Francke said.


DeBrito said the fact it is getting colder outside presents an emergency situation that should be addressed now.

“Aren’t we here to serve the community?” she said.

Earlier in the meeting, the council voted to accept a community paramedic grant of $100,000, plus another $50,000 from a donor, to start a program to enable responders to go into homeless encampments and other places to check people who have been released from hospitals or emergency departments. Because people oftentimes face long waits for follow-up appointments, the program is also intended to relieve pressure on overwhelmed emergency departments by helping people before they return in a crisis.

Council Chairwoman Rebecca Green, D-Ward 4, made a motion to convene a group to discuss the yurt plan, including public safety officials, City Manager Bryan Kaenrath, Mid-Maine Homeless Shelter Executive Director Katie Spencer White, Stevens, DeBrito, Coelho and others. The council voted to approve it.

Joshua Lukens, 24, and his fiancee, Tessa, 23, who declined to provide her last names, walk to their campsite Wednesday along the Kennebec River, near Head of Falls in Waterville. Their tent is near where the city is considering erecting 10 yurts to provide shelter for the homeless during winter. Rich Abrahamson/Morning Sentinel

“It’s a new idea,” Green said, “but let’s vet it more with people who have experience serving unhoused people and people impacted themselves.”

Coelho said later he thinks the meeting will be held this week, and a special council meeting will be called soon to vote on the proposal.


Along a trail at the north end of Head of Falls on Wednesday, multiple tents dotted the riverbank. Joshua Lukens, 24, and his fiancee, Tessa, 23, who asked that her last name not be used, said they knew about the city’s efforts to place the yurts in the area. They said they liked the idea, but had questions about it.

“I don’t think it would be a bad idea. It would help people out,” Lukens said. “It would definitely be a better chance for surviving the winter. But who’s going to get a yurt? Who is going to decide?”

A 30-year-old woman named Amanda, who also did not want her last name used, said she did not think 10 yurts would be enough for all who live along the trail and those living at the south end of the Head of Falls parking lot, just above the Kennebec River.

In other matters Tuesday, the council voted to adopt a downtown vision plan and implementation strategy, which includes forming a committee to consider long-term projects and how to fund them.

The plan includes needs for the downtown area that were identified at four workshops held with residents, city officials and planners. Some of the projects include filling vacant buildings downtown, creating a pedestrian walkway from Castonguay Square to Front Street and Head of Falls, creating a parking management plan and developing a community center.

Tuesday’s council meeting was the first at 46 Front St., which is adjacent to City Hall and being leased by the city after an extensive renovation was done to the building to accommodate municipal meetings.

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