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 file

It’s a phenomenon that seems to have burst on the scene recently, but actually it has been coming for a long time.

The homeless situation in Waterville is at a critical level, as it is in many U.S. cities.

I have been interviewing homeless people in Waterville for the last several years, and have never met so many.

A few years ago you could walk the trail on the riverfront off Front Street and meet people living in tents here and there in the woods or at the end of the trail near the railroad yard, but now they are everywhere — scattered in the woods and open spaces off Front Street, down by the river near Hathaway Creative Center, in the woods behind Walmart and other areas.

A few years ago it was an anomaly to see homeless people standing by the road off upper Main Street and on Waterville Commons Drive, holding signs asking for money. Now it’s nearly every day.

Food cupboards and soup kitchens are feeding more people than ever and struggling to keep up with the need. Officials from those organizations are pleading with the City Council for funds.


Waterville has been a generous city in that regard, with many saying they consider the homeless members of the community — a community that, as one reader emailed me to say, has invested millions in downtown revitalization, which is wonderful, but it has homeless encampments a stone’s throw away. The writer asked “What is wrong with this picture?”

It has become common to see area residents on the riverbanks, handing out food, clothing, blankets and other necessities to the homeless. Todd Stevens, a social worker hired by the police department earlier this year to help people connect with resources, spends every day meeting them at the soup kitchen and other places they frequent. On Tuesday he addressed the City Council, calling the homeless situation a crisis and pitching Mayor Jay Coelho’s idea of buying 10, four-season yurts to house some 40 people so they will be warm this winter at Head of Falls.

The Rev. Maureen Ausbrook and Nancy Sanford of the First Congregational United Church of Christ also have boots on the ground. Ausbrook co-directs Starfish Village, a program of the church, and focuses on helping not only the homeless, but also people at risk of losing their housing or jobs because of emergencies such as a broken-down vehicle needing repair. Waterville’s homeless shelter is full, the city’s general assistance department is constantly busy.

The Universalist Unitarian Church feeds people through its sandwich program, the city’s housing committee led by council Chairwoman Rebecca Green is trying to help solve housing crises, and the Waterville and Winslow community food cupboards are working overtime. Police are constantly checking on and aiding the homeless, and the fire department is launching a paramedicine pilot project, approved by the council, that will allow first responders to tend to medical needs of homeless people at their encampments after they have been released from hospitals. Follow-up appointments can be a long way off and many homeless end up having to return to overwhelmed emergency departments for treatment.

The number of overdoses among the homeless also is rising. Everett Flannery, deputy fire chief, told councilors this month that since Jan. 1 rescue workers have gone to Head of Falls 43 times, with about a dozen of the calls for overdoses and the rest for medical or trauma complaints.

Stevens, the community outreach coordinator, helped launch an event there a few weeks ago where multiple agencies and organizations were able to meet with homeless people, and those on the verge of homelessness, and connect them with needed services.


Which is all to say, we are an inclusive and empathetic community, yet we are only scratching the surface when it comes to tackling an immense problem.

Mayor Coelho says Waterville will not be a city that clears out homeless encampments as others have, though some residents, understandably, ask how we can afford the money and resources needed to prevent that.

The issue is bigger than one city or one community can solve, beyond temporary fixes such as erecting yurts and handing out food.

Many homeless people on the riverfront suffer from mental and physical illnesses, as well as substance use problems. They all want to find housing, according to Tessa, a 23-year-old woman I met there Wednesday.

“Everybody on this trail is trying to get out,” she said. “It’s hard — it is — but you just keep pushing.”

I don’t pretend to know how to fix this monumental crisis. But as one who has witnessed the growing problem in Waterville, I think it requires the big guns. It’s time, I think, for state or federal intervention. Because going it alone isn’t going to cut it.

Amy Calder has been a Morning Sentinel reporter 35 years. Her columns appear here weekly. She is the author of the book “Comfort is an Old Barn,” a collection of her curated columns, published this year by Islandport Press. She may be reached at For previous Reporting Aside columns, go to

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