Lewiston council approves stricter ordinance on public camping

Dec. 21—LEWISTON — The City Council voted 4-3 Tuesday to approve new ordinance language that bans camping on public property, but delayed its implementation until the spring.

The change, which officials said came in response to safety issues related to homeless encampments, will not go into effect until April 1, 2023.

During a first reading this month, staff said the proposal followed recent enforcement action at homeless encampments on city property, including near Sunnyside Park, where there were reports of threats and other disorderly conduct.

The new language says it is "unlawful to camp, sleep, or remain upon the grounds of any municipal building, and municipal cemetery, field or woodlands, or any other city owned, controlled or maintained property between the hours of 9 p.m. to 5 a.m."

An amendment to the original language also gives the city administrator the ability to give special permission for an individual to remain on public property.

While those in favor said the addition to the ordinance simply gives police a broader ability to address safety concerns related to encampments, many others said it will only make life harder for a growing homeless population — potentially forcing people into more unsafe situations further out of the public eye.

Jeffrey Padham, a Lewiston landlord who serves on the city's Housing Committee, said the new language is effectively "criminalizing homelessness." If people don't have access to a shelter, and aren't allowed on public property, where else are they going to go, he asked.

Padham said it will only create more problems for law enforcement if more people begin sleeping on private property instead.

Councilor Linda Scott said she couldn't support the change without first having more resources available for people. Recent efforts in Lewiston and Auburn to create some kind of emergency winter shelter have so far failed.

"I understand the need, but we don't have a place to send them," she said.

Others criticized the city for making the decision one night before the winter solstice, which is recognized annually by homeless advocates with vigils and other events to mark the longest night of the year. Scott said she planned to attend Lewiston's vigil Wednesday night.

Chris Bicknell, executive director of New Beginnings, also argued that the change "does nothing to solve homelessness." He said the solution to homelessness is more affordable housing and supportive services, and that the language will only make matters worse for the homeless who are already exposed to exploitation and violence.

"This community can do better," he said.

Those supporting the change said they see it simply as "a tool" for police to use if needed.

"This isn't some campaign against homeless people," Councilor Lee Clement said. "I know our police, they aren't going to use this to wage war on the homeless. But, we have to be able to address situations as they arise."

Police Chief David St. Pierre said the ordinance "gives us more teeth to move people along," but said officers will be directed to use discretion. "The intent is not criminalizing," he said, adding that the city has addressed homeless encampments by attempting to connect people with services.

St. Pierre said the department's primary responsibility is the safety of everyone, including people camping overnight.

A few officials responded that police already have the means to move along people for disorderly conduct or obstructing a public way.

Scott, whose ward includes Sunnyside Park, said she sees both sides of an issue that has impacted her personally.

She said she's received calls from constituents near Sunnyside Park who have had items stolen from their yards, and heard from downtown business owners about how the homelessness issue has impacted business. But, she said, she also has her daughter and grandchildren living with her because they have nowhere else to go.

"I get very concerned about what I see," she said.

More than once, Lewiston officials referenced decisions made in Auburn, including a decision Monday to delay a review of zoning districts for possible shelter uses.

Scott said "it's not just us," dealing with the issue.

"What is Auburn doing?" she asked. "They won't even have the discussion to have a homeless shelter."

Councilor Rick LaChapelle said Lewiston is the only city in the county to recently "increase the number of shelter beds allowed," referring to the council's earlier process to draft a shelter ordinance. The ordinance, however, placed a cap of 125 on the number of shelter beds allowed

During public comment, Nicole Sparlin said the proposal only "hurts our city's reputation more," and that the decision will only "make them invisible to the public while we continue to fail them with policy."

A homeless resident named Randy said the proposal was "absolutely disgusting," adding that the council has been talking about shelters for more than a year.

"All you guys seem to do is talk," he said.

Ron Potvin, vice president of Store Next Door, a program that supports homeless students, said the city has been making progress to respond to the homelessness issue, but said it's not yet in the position to implement language like this.

"My immediate concern is these very people you are talking about banning are also students," he said. "It's unfair to put people in this situation given where the city is with homelessness. It might be reasonable if there was a winter shelter in place. We're not there yet."

Mayor Carl Sheline urged councilors to vote it down. He said that the council's recent actions, taken together, are "leaning a lot toward enforcement and we really need to provide solutions for people."

Similarly, Councilor Stephanie Gelinas said that "in the absence of a municipally-supported shelter, I can't support this."

Councilor Scott Harriman said the new language is "offensive" following "all the stonewalling this council has put in place to stop shelters," with "nothing in place for people to go."

Harriman brought up a recent Sun Journal story about Enzo Gelestino, who lives with his two children in a bus parked at the Lincoln Street boat launch. Under the updated ordinance, the family would no longer be able to park there, he said.

Ultimately, the council voted 4-3 to pass the new language, following a motion by Councilor Bob McCarthy to delay its effective date until April 1, 2023.

McCarthy said it could give police and residents a few months to ready for the change, and to "get us through winter."

In response, Sheline said, "It's a bad idea now and it will also be a bad idea April 1."

Prior to the final vote, Sheline added, "If this council wanted to have a temporary winter shelter, we would have had one by now."