During the recent Augusta Planning Board hearing on the proposed new shelter and service center for unhoused people many things were said that were either untrue or sweeping generalizations.

Over the last 15 months, I have joined with dozens of other area residents to prepare Saturday breakfast for our unhoused neighbors. We’ve had the support of area churches and other community institutions. Together, we have built a community that has been a blessing for housed and unhoused alike. I and others have come to know and love a set of people who are far different than the sort described by shelter opponents.

Some opponents argued that converting a church to a permanent year-round shelter would attract throngs of new unhoused people to the area to take advantage of the services provided by Augusta taxpayers. It is true that there has been a large influx of new unhoused people living on our streets. But I don’t know a single person who came here for the services we provide. Almost all came because other places they were living were so cruel and inhumane.

Cruelty as a deterrent certainly works but is that the sort of city that Augusta or any city in Maine wants to become? Or are we better than that and creative enough to find a better way of dealing with the challenges that face us all?

Mainers have been in this place before. In 1895 — the time when many older Mainers’ great-grandparents were young adults — 70% of the population of Maine were foreign born, either by their own birth or that of their parents. They came here fleeing poverty and perhaps cruel oppression in other places. They were seeking a better life. But they brought with them problems. Some of them drank way too much, got into fights, engaged in domestic violence and no doubt occasionally soiled their streets with human waste. Many didn’t speak English. There were probably those who worried out loud about the problems they were causing.

But others took a different tack and tried to welcome and serve the newcomers. Churches established feeding programs, health care programs, schools, and services to hone job and language skills. Slowly, these newcomers settled in and began contributing their gifts to build the place we now call home. Many of us call these immigrants and refugees our ancestors.


Some shelter opponents told stories of social problems caused by the unhoused, including using the sidewalks as toilets, vandalizing property, and aggressive panhandling. I doubt there’s anyone that doubts these things have happened, but I know most of my unhoused friends are also troubled by these behaviors by others in their community. I have witnessed a group of people who are unhoused going to find someone they know defecated in a public place and made them clean it up. I have seen our neighbors who lack housing pick up cigarette butts on a sidewalk, regardless of the housing status of the person who carelessly discarded it.

But yes, problems remain, and they should be addressed, but not by punishing the many for the actions of the few. For what other populations do we respond this way? When one lawyer in town behaves unethically and commits fraud against their client do we disbar every other attorney in town and shutter their offices? Or if one downtown restaurant has lax food safety procedures leaving some patrons sick, does the city inspector post shut down orders on every other food establishment?

Lastly, some of the Planning Board debate centered on property rights. Augusta is a very poor city. More than one in five Augusta residents live in poverty (more than twice the state average); 231 students in Augusta schools live in poverty and 91 of them experience homelessness, according to city school reports to the state. Thus, we live in a community where many have no property, or the privilege that property ownership affords. People who are living on our streets are only the most visible face of the poverty that surrounds us. When facing decisions like the proposed shelter, do the rights of those with property trump the rights of others to a safe and decent life, which in the case of the unhoused might just be a shelter that they can call their own?

How we answer these questions says a lot about the city we are, the place we aspire to be and how we will be remembered by those who will come after we are gone.

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