FARMINGTON — Residents expressed few concerns Wednesday morning at a forum to discuss plans by the Western Maine Homeless Outreach shelter to expand in a new space downtown.

And there’s little reason why they should be concerned, leaders from the shelter and the Old South First Congregational Church of Farmington said. The two organizations hosted the forum discussing the impending move into space owned by the church on Main Street.

“We have heard reports of people having concerns and then when they hear more about it, they’re like ‘Oh, OK,’” said Chris Magri, moderator of the church. “That’s one of the reasons we wanted to have this conversation — to hear what concerns there are, if any. We want to be good neighbors.”

Western Maine Homeless Outreach, Franklin County’s only homeless shelter, is planning to move to Holman House, an older home owned by the church, after renovations are complete this summer.

The move will relocate the shelter from Wilton Road, which is also Route 2, and allow it to double capacity, from 16 beds to around 30.

Since the shelter opened in November 2013, the Farmington Police Department has responded to 17 calls and there have been two arrests, according to Police Chief Jack Peck, who also serves on the shelter’s board of directors.

“As you can see, there really haven’t been issues,” Peck said. “We do vet the people who go in there and (the shelter) has my cellphone. They have called me before to say, ‘Hey, I have this guy I don’t feel right about.’ It doesn’t happen often, but we will go check them out.”

The shelter aims to primarily serve families and has hosted 330 people in the four and a half years it’s been open. The average stay is 28 days, according to materials provided at Wednesday’s forum.

Residents asked questions about where most people who stay at the shelter come from, whether they have vehicles and how they have been received by neighbors at its current location, which is in the basement of the Living Waters Assembly of God church.

Steve Bracy, president of the shelter’s board of directors and pastor at Living Waters, said neighbors have had few complaints. He and his wife also live nearby.

“I’ve been impressed,” he said. “We really don’t have a lot of issues. If it weren’t for the fact they’ve taken over too much of our church, they could stay longer. But we need the space back and they’ve really outgrown it.”

Resident Frank Underkuffler asked whether the shelter might do more to stay open 24 hours per day throughout the year. He said he read about other shelters around the state where limited services and increasing demand have contributed to problems in surrounding neighborhoods.

The shelter is open all day in the winter months, but closes from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. in the spring, summer and fall.

“I’m asking whether there is any possibility you could broaden your mission to become a 24-hour facility so you don’t have to basically kick everybody out at 8 a.m. to fend for themselves without resources or jobs to do that,” Underkuffler said. “I think when you do that, you’re putting a burden on the persons who are homeless and also kind of putting a burden on the community to host these persons during that time.”

Bracy and Diane Alexander, case manager at the shelter, agreed there is a need for 24-hour service, but said funding for staff has been a barrier to expanding services in the past.

“Our biggest challenge is our ability to pay people,” Bracy said. “We do have a good volunteer base, but not enough to support around the clock. If our community could help us raise money to do that, I think it’s an awesome idea to expand our mission, but like everything, it all boils down to finances.”

Leaders from the shelter have touted the move as an advantage for the homeless, saying it will place them closer to services and potential jobs downtown.

They’ve said residents shouldn’t worry because a large number of guests at the shelter — around 50 percent — are families with children. The shelter works with them to find new housing and keep them placed in permanent housing long term.

It’s also a dry shelter, meaning people cannot stay there if they come in under the influence, and drugs and alcohol are not allowed.

“For four and a half years Western Maine Homeless Outreach has been carrying out this wonderful operation successfully, reaching out to the homeless and getting them back to the point where they’re leading safe, productive, rewarding lives,” Magri said. “I’m really proud we have the opportunity to take it to the next level. It shows that Farmington isn’t just a town, it’s a community.”

Chris Magri, moderator of the First Congregational Church of Farmington, stands in front of the Holman House on Main Street in downtown Farmington. The church is planning to open the house up to Western Maine Homeless Outreach. (Michael G. Seamans/Morning Sentinel)

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