The Augusta Planning Board on Tuesday unanimously rejected a plan to convert the Green Street United Methodist Church, above, into a 40-bed homeless shelter and community center. At the meeting, business owners and residents argued that the proposal would threaten public safety downtown. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal

AUGUSTA — A proposal to create a new 40-bed homeless shelter and community center at a Green Street church was voted down by the Planning Board on Tuesday amid worries about what it could mean for public safety and commerce downtown.

The proposal called for converting the Green Street United Methodist Church into a nonprofit homeless shelter with overnight beds for 40 people in what is now the church’s sanctuary.

The shelter also planned to house up to 16 tenants in longer-term, supported rental housing units that would be built in what is now Sunday school classroom space, as well as a daytime community center, which could provide guests of the shelter with up to three meals a day and access to community health workers who could help them connect to social services.

The group behind the shelter proposal called for a “good neighbor policy” requiring guests there to be respectful not just while on the shelter property but also while in the surrounding neighborhood.

Planning Board members said that would be inadequate to ensure guests, such as ones under the influence of substances, wouldn’t loiter and cause problems in the neighborhood, noting that the number of police calls to the South Parish Congregational Church neighborhood have increased dramatically since it began hosting the Augusta Overnight Emergency Warming Center in 2022.

Board members were also concerned that the group’s founders did not show they had the financial capability or technical expertise to open and run the shelter, especially since other, similar shelters are struggling financially elsewhere in Maine, and that the shelter could reduce the property values of neighbors.


After a six-hour hearing that packed the meeting room, forcing some to take part remotely, board members voted unanimously, 5-0, to reject the proposal, saying it did not fit into the neighborhood, nor did it meet the land-use requirements for a conditional use permit to be located there.

“I think I have seven different ways it doesn’t meet our ordinances,” said board member Alison Nichols. “I also don’t believe this is the right place. Do we need something like this? Absolutely. But we don’t need to destroy one neighborhood to bring it in.”

Numerous residents and business owners at the meeting argued that the shelter would be a magnet for homeless people from across the state, coming from places where such services aren’t available. It would, they said, exacerbate problems between homeless people and downtown businesses and reduce property values in the neighborhood. What’s more, organizers don’t have a firm plan in place for how it would be run, they argued.

Supporters and advocates for the homeless said the proposal to purchase and convert the 17,000-square-foot church facility into a nonprofit operation would provide temporary and longer-term housing and other help to the growing number of people who are homeless. They say the proposal would fill gaps for that vulnerable population, giving them opportunities and a path to escape homelessness.

Betty St. Hilaire leads a tour in November at Green Street United Methodist Church in Augusta. St. Hilaire is part of a group proposing to convert the church into a low-barrier homeless shelter. “The reason we want to do this is there’s a need,” she said at a hearing Tuesday on the proposal. “We are willing to step up for our community and try to make a difference and try to do something better for these folks, who really just need a hand.” Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal

It could also help the relationship between the homeless population and downtown Augusta, they said.

Resident Nash Callahan, owner of Capital City Cycles on downtown Water Street, said the proposal would give people who are homeless somewhere to go during the day. He’s had someone sleep on his shop’s doorstep, he said, and worries there will be more people without anywhere to spend the night when an overnight winter shelter closes for the season. He said some residents and business owners fear homeless people.


“It’s a need in our community, and sometimes need transcends our fears,” he said. “We need to step up as a community and not let fear rule our lives.”

Ehrin Simanski, an owner of Lisa’s Legit Burritos downtown, said transient people are committing crimes downtown, defecating, urinating and masturbating in public, and scaring off customers. A low-barrier shelter so close to the downtown will attract not only people who need shelter but also sex offenders and dangerous felons, Simanski said, adding that she likes the people behind the proposal for the homeless shelter, but they do not have an adequate plan.

“I’m not afraid of the homeless, I’m afraid I’ll lose my business because people don’t want to come downtown anymore,” she said. “The individuals that are frequenting these homeless shelters, probably half of them are the individuals that do not want the help. I’m not against helping people. I’m against the location. We need to put this shelter in a different place. There’s got to be a different place.”

A group of volunteers is raising money to purchase and renovate the property. An agreement has been reached with the church to buy it for $650,000, if the group continues to show progress in raising funds and the site is approved by the city for use as a homeless shelter.

The 15 Green St. church was listed for sale after congregation members determined their dwindling numbers no longer needed or could afford to maintain such a large property. It was initially listed for $985,000.

Henry Berry, a 30-year congregant of Green Street United Methodist Church as well as a board member, said in a letter to the Planning Board that using the church as a homeless shelter is consistent with the mission of the church. Selling it to a nonprofit organization with a vision of helping the unhoused, he said, “honors the stewardship of the property with which we have been entrusted,” and because it will improve the community and the lives of the unhoused.


Organizers said they’ve looked at many other properties but none offered the advantages of the church, which has an elevator, a sprinkler system, a commercial kitchen and security cameras, as well as accessibility for people with disabilities.

However, Victoria Abbott, executive director of Bread of Life Ministries, which operates a 40-bed family shelter and 14-bed veterans shelter on Hospital Street in Augusta, and is opening a new supported living facility for veterans on Bangor Street, said in a letter to the Planning Board that the church project would not help the unhoused, nor the city of Augusta, in the long run.

Abbott, who is also president of the Augusta Downtown Alliance, wrote that the new shelter on Green Street would add additional stress to an area of the city already host to what she described as “high risk/high need patrons utilizing MaineGeneral’s Harm Reduction team (includes the needle exchange), MaineGeneral’s (Assertive Community Treatment), as well as low-income housing. Centralizing support services in one area may look like a good idea in conception, but in fruition it actually creates an economic downturn to a particular area.”

She added, “The unhoused population that would need a low-barrier shelter due to addiction issues is a difficult population to serve. It is a substantial liability to take on 40 high-risk individuals into an untrained shelter setting.”

Betty St. Hilaire, one of the founders of the group looking to start the new shelter, said that before the shelter opens, staff would be trained in mental health first aid, conflict de-escalation, and 40 hours of other core training followed up by onsite training. A letter from Elizabeth Foley, co-director of MCD Global Health, submitted as part of the application process, states the nonprofit organization is committed to provide training and technical assistance to the community health workers and others who’d work at the facility.

St. Hilaire said shelter guests would need to leave the shelter during the day but will be able to stay at the community center if they are accessing services there.


“The reason we want to do this is there’s a need,” she said. “We are willing to step up for our community and try to make a difference and try to do something better for these folks, who really just need a hand.”

Low-barrier shelters generally accept people who are actively using drugs or alcohol, have untreated mental illnesses, have criminal records or are sex offenders, who might not be allowed into family homeless shelters, such as the one operated by Bread of Life.

Nathan Howell, president and CEO of MaineGeneral Health, wrote a letter in support of establishing a low-barrier shelter in the city.

“MaineGeneral has a lot of experience treating our city’s unhoused, usually in our Emergency Department,” he wrote of the hospital. “We see firsthand the devastating impact of homelessness. A low-barrier shelter is a bridge to safety and access to wrap-around social services to help address underlying causes of homelessness.”

So many people attended Tuesday’s meeting that some watched from an overflow room, elsewhere at Augusta City Center, because council chambers where the meeting took place was at standing-room-only capacity.

There likely wasn’t anyone among them from the population the shelter seeks to serve, St. Hilaire added, because in order for them to get a bed at the overnight warming center, they have to be in line at 5 p.m.

Once there, if they leave — to attend a meeting, or visit family, or for anything else — they’d lose their bed. The proposed new shelter, she said, would allow guests, once they have a bed, to keep that bed until they move elsewhere.

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