Dec. 7—LEWISTON — City officials are looking to add more restrictive language related to loitering, camping or sleeping on city owned properties in response to recent enforcement action at encampments of unhoused people.
Police Chief David St. Pierre said that while existing signage posted at various parks prohibits use during nighttime hours, the city is looking to bolster its rules related to other city-owned property, including wooded areas.
The City Council on Tuesday voted 6-1 in a first reading to add wording that would prohibit camping or sleeping on city-owned parcels, and clarify the properties, "including woodlands, are closed during this time period and make it unlawful to be present without special circumstances."
City administration said the new wording will be reviewed by legal counsel and amendments would likely be made prior to a final reading on the change, slated for Dec. 20.
The discussion comes as both Lewiston and Auburn — along with other large municipalities — are grappling with a homelessness crisis.
St. Pierre said encampments of unhoused people have been found with increasing frequency this year, but that an encampment near Sunnyside Park, which is owned by the city, led to several complaints from the public.
He said there was a report of someone being "chased away" from the recreational area prior to the city taking enforcement action on the encampment this fall. The city posted notices and attempted to connect people with a range of services before taking action, officials have said.
Councilor Scott Harriman, who voted against the new language, said the way the proposed language is written "makes it sound like no one can be in any park after dark."
"The way I read it, I can't walk home through the park after this meeting," he said.
The language as proposed states "it shall be unlawful to stop, loiter, camp, sleep, be or remain upon any school grounds, the grounds of any municipal building, any municipal building, and municipal cemetery or park, field or woodlands, any municipal recreation facility or playfield, or any other city owned controlled or maintained property between the hours of sunset and sunrise of the following day, unless such person is in lawful employment, participating in a program or activity sponsored or authorized by the city."
Harriman also said that if the council is going to take this action, "we should also do something helpful to give them somewhere to go as far as a shelter or something else." The city does not have a 24-hour shelter, something that has been at the root of months of conversations — and a new shelter ordinance — in Lewiston.
Recent efforts to collaborate on an emergency winter shelter with the city of Auburn and Androscoggin County government have failed to get off the ground.
St. Pierre said the purpose of the language is to prohibit people from staying for an extended period of time, or "setting up camp there without adequate needs." He said another component is addressing the perceived "image" of Lewiston.
He said encampments found by police have been "areas devastated by unsanitary items and trash," and that the city removed 9,000 pounds of clothing, tents and other items from a recent encampment.
Councilor Stephanie Gelinas said that the process at the Sunnyside Park encampment was thoughtful due to approaching people with resources, including the city's Project Support You staff. She said she'd support the added wording "as long as that thoughtful deliberate process is also undertaken" going forward.
Councilor Lee Clement said he has "full faith in the (police department) that we're not going to just go out there and railroad people."
He said after leaves fell from the trees this fall, the scope of encampments around Lewiston and Auburn was shown. He said one encampment featured a "two-story treehouse."
"We need to give police the proper tools to deal with these problems," he said.