Signs posted on the doors of the Lewiston Armory state all Lewiston Recreation programs and activities were suspended for two weeks, beginning March 13. Daryn Slover/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

LEWISTON — A 60-bed emergency “wellness” shelter is being developed at the Lewiston Armory to house some of the city’s homeless during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The 24-hour shelter will be modeled after a similar effort at the University of Southern Maine’s Sullivan Gym in Portland, aimed at providing emergency shelter in a setting that allows people to follow social distancing protocols.

Lewiston nonprofit Community Concepts, which issued a prepared statement Tuesday afternoon, will manage the day-to-day operations, with funding coming from MaineHousing.

The city of Lewiston, the Maine Department of Health and Human Services and the region’s two major hospitals are also partners.

“The homeless community is a forgotten community, and during this global pandemic, people need a safe place to shelter in place to help fight the spread of the coronavirus,” said Shawn Yardley, CEO of Community Concepts. “When city officials reached out and asked for help, my answer was, ‘How can we help?'”

Community Concepts officials say there are about 150 people without shelter in the community. Yardley said the armory can accommodate up to 60 emergency cots, while keeping a 6-foot minimum distance.

Yardley said the shelter will be for adult men and women in need of housing who are not exhibiting signs of illness, and will be up and running soon as his organization can hire the staff needed to operate the 24-hour shelter.

“In addition to a warm, dry bed and clean restroom facilities, we will provide three meals a day,” he said. “All staff and guests will maintain safe social distancing and be provided with the proper protective equipment, as recommended by the (Maine Centers for Disease Control & Prevention).”

According to Community Concepts, anyone who exhibits signs of illness will be immediately isolated and referred to the appropriate medical staff.

Mayor Mark Cayer and other officials said the spread of COVID-19 among the local homeless population is of key concern, especially because Lewiston’s shelters do not provide adequate space for social distancing.

“The current health emergency is a particular concern for individuals who are currently in shelters without adequate space for social distancing or who have no place to stay, potentially presenting a risk to both themselves and others in the community,” Cayer said.

“Housing them safely is essential to the health of this population and to protect the entire community from the potential for community spread.”

Lewiston does not have a publicly run, overnight homeless shelter, and the pandemic has renewed calls for the city to develop plans for one.

Homeless advocate Calvin Dube told the Sun Journal recently he has interacted with a number of the city’s homeless, some of whom are living together in encampments during the crisis.

Dube, formerly a longtime director of the Trinity Jubilee Center, has been pressing city officials to pursue a barrier-free, overnight homeless shelter for years.

“Social distancing, especially in a vulnerable population as the homeless, is key to preventing the spread of COVID-19,” said Dan Brennan, director of MaineHousing. “I commend the Lewiston community for coming together with compassion and foresight. I am proud to be part of this effort.”

Community Concepts is looking for temporary workers with experience in health care, social work or other areas of human service. According to Community Concepts, the starting hourly rate for workers is expected to be at least $18 an hour.

The shelter is projected to operate through June 30.

“Please consider joining our team temporarily and helping the community during this difficult time,” Yardley said.

The organization plans to take advantage of help from other local partners. Yardley said services such as laundry and food preparation will be needed.

The Lewiston Armory had previously been used as a remote testing site for the local hospitals, but, according to city staff, is no longer being used for that purpose.

In Portland, the temporary shelter operated by Preble Street was a reaction to overcrowding at the city’s Oxford Street shelter, which had been operating beyond capacity and reported at least two COVID-19 cases.

While the Preble Street shelter at USM is meant for those showing no signs of illness, the Portland Expo has been used as quarantine space for those who may have come into contact with others who have tested positive.

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