Tents near Interstate 95 in Waterville, where Randy Boivin and his family are living. Boivin, 42, who declined to be photographed Monday, says he and his family moved to the wooded area after being cleared out of an encampment at Head of Falls, where Waterville is now enforcing a camping ban. City officials say the ban is part of an effort to get more people off the streets, but the local homeless shelter has been pushed beyond capacity and is facing financial troubles. Rich Abrahamson/Morning Sentinel

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to correctly reflect comments made by Katie Spencer White, president and CEO of the Mid-Maine Homeless Shelter, and to clarify aspects of funding and organization related to Waterville efforts at aiding homeless people.

WATERVILLE — Several signs appeared March 16 in downtown Waterville, near the Hathaway Creative Center and at Head of Falls Park. Emblazoned with Waterville’s city seal, they had a simple message: “No camping day or night. Police take notice.”

The park along the Kennebec River has long been at the center of Waterville’s homeless debate. It is home to the iconic Two-Cent Bridge and a number of annual community events and gatherings, and was for years the site of two ever-growing tent encampments.

The sudden announcement of the downtown camping ban marks a dramatic shift in Waterville’s approach to homelessness. In October, city officials were considering buying yurts to provide temporary shelter for people living at Head of Falls. By February, tents at the park had been removed and their residents threatened with arrest.

City officials say the policy is working, and they have made progress this winter moving the homeless from tents to shelters.

At the same time, officials at the city’s main shelter say it has been pushed beyond capacity and is struggling to keep its doors open.


Many homeless people worry they are being left behind.


Waterville’s camping ban is not new, according to Councilor Flavia DeBrito, but enforcement of it is. The ban has been on the books for several years, but law enforcement and town officials had declined to enforce it due to a lack of available resources in the community.

Concerns arose about the encampments’ safety, DeBrito said last week, after two homeless people were killed last November in tent fires that were suspected to have been started by propane heaters, which are used by many homeless people during the winter months. By November, heaters were being used by many of those living in encampments near the Hathaway Creative Center or at Head of Falls.

Weeks later, all three encampments were washed away by about 5 feet of water during the historic Dec. 18 flood that submerged much of the area near the Hathaway Creative Center. When floodwaters receded and tents began popping back up, the city decided to step in, according to DeBrito.

“During that storm that we had in December, it really flooded that area. That’s when the conversation started about safety,” she said. “We were worried about the winter. Having yurts and tents down there, having heating systems, it was just not safe.”

Before the camping ban enforcement started, the city allocated $200,000 in February to the Mid-Maine Homeless Shelter to help sustain its emergency shelter. The city also entered into a partnership with the Waterville Area Soup Kitchen to provide direct aid through the winter.


“A lot of folks didn’t have a safe place to go,” DeBrito said. “The city didn’t have anything in place. We don’t have a community center. We didn’t have a warming center.”

With partnerships in place, the city began moving people in late February from tents at Head of Falls into the Mid-Maine Homeless Shelter at 19 Colby St.

While the shelter has become a key aspect of the city’s response to homelessness, its president says it has significantly exceeded capacity for the entire winter — and risks closing without more help from city and state government.


The Mid-Maine Homeless Shelter, which provides housing assistance, job opportunities and more, is the state’s only low-barrier shelter between Portland and Bangor. Unlike traditional shelters, low-barrier shelters admit individuals regardless of their sobriety or mental health status with the goal of providing immediate refuge and necessities to those experiencing homelessness.

Katie Spencer White, the shelter’s president and CEO, said last week that her organization faces a heavy strain due to the lack of available resources in Maine, with the state not spending enough and shelters such as Waterville’s not receiving financial reimbursement for the work they do.

It is the only low-barrier shelter in central Maine, with Spencer White saying the vast majority of people are from the Waterville area. Some of the shelter’s residents say they came from miles away for warm meals and a safe place to sleep when they couldn’t find those things elsewhere, especially during the winter months. The shelter is the only one in the state that maintains a “no-turn-away policy” during the winter, meaning it does not deny service to anyone.


A resident enters the Mid-Maine Homeless Shelter in Waterville last year. The lack of available resources in central Maine, coupled with Waterville’s push to move people into homeless shelters, has put great strain on the shelter, which is at risk of closing and might have to begin turning people away when full. Morning Sentinel file

Spencer White said the shelter’s seasonal demand spikes every winter. However, a number of the people experiencing homelessness in Waterville said the clearing of the encampment pushed even more people into an already crowded shelter.

“We serve far more people than we’re funded to serve, that’s the short answer,” she said.

The shelter served more than 90 people on many nights this winter in a facility designed with 44 bunk beds with six overflow cots, Spencer White said. A state grant funds an additional 20 cots in the winter that can be placed in common areas and the shelter converted an office into a room for people with special needs, she said.

The shelter is also at risk of closing by year’s end without immediate support from the state, Spencer White said. While the city’s one-time donation of $200,000 will sustain the shelter for a few months, Spencer White said the shelter is operating at a severe loss, and has been for years.

While ambulances, hospitals and other similar providers can bill patients for services, it is more difficult to charge people experiencing homelessness, she said. This means the shelter in Waterville — and most others across the state — rely largely on community donations and local governments to keep its doors open.

The budget shortfalls have forced the Mid-Maine Homeless Shelter to plan on cutting some of its services when funding for its warming center runs out in May, Spencer White said. For the first time, the shelter will begin to turn people away when it is full.


“We generate $488,621 in revenue, and the service itself costs $1.1 million,” Spencer White said. “It costs about $100 a day to operate a shelter bed. We get about $23 from state and federal available resources per bed. The one-time funding from the city and the county in no way enables us to sustain 100 beds in the summer.”

As the shelter prepares to reduce what it is able to offer, many in Waterville’s homeless community are worried that if they cannot find a bed there, they will be arrested for sleeping elsewhere.


After the city began clearing the downtown encampments, some of the residents moved to a spot in the woods near Interstate 95, where a clump of tents has become the home for about 10 people displaced by Waterville’s camping ban.

Randy Boivin said he has been homeless for the past eight months, and has lived at the encampment since being cleared out from Head of Falls and threatened with arrest. He said he works full time to support himself, finding jobs as a mechanic, carpenter and construction worker.

The campsite near Interstate 95 in Waterville where Randy Boivin and his family are living. Boivin, 42, says he works full time, but cannot find housing he can afford. “You have to have first month’s rent, last month’s rent, plus the actual rent every month,” he says. “A lot of people are like me. We’re registered felons, so we don’t have jobs that make that kind of money and people don’t wanna rent to us.” Rich Abrahamson/Morning Sentinel

Boivin said he is unable to afford rent in Waterville, where he has lived his entire life. Boivin has difficulty finding steady jobs because he does not have an ID and is a registered felon, barriers that also prevent him from moving into stable housing.

“With the price of housing, nobody can really afford it,” he said. “You have to have first month’s rent, last month’s rent, plus the actual rent every month. A lot of people are like me. We’re registered felons, so we don’t have jobs that make that kind of money, and people don’t wanna rent to us.”

Boivin said he has worked to create a home for himself inside his tent, buying a gasoline-powered generator for electricity and a propane heater for warmth. He lives there with his wife and two childhood friends, all victims of similar circumstances.

As the seasons begin to shift and the weather begins to warm, Boivin said he and his neighbors are increasingly anxious about being arrested for violating the camping ban, but with little income, a shelter in flux and rents more expensive than they can afford, they have nowhere else to go.

“They want us to go to the homeless shelter, but the homeless shelter is full and the warming center is closing in a week,” he said. “I mean, what are we supposed to do?”

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