LEWISTON — With winter on the doorstep, city officials approved a 28-bed temporary wellness shelter at the Ramada Hotel on Pleasant Street, marking a new approach for combating homelessness in the Twin Cities.

The City Council voted 6-1 to approve the use of a MaineHousing Emergency Solutions Grant to authorize Community Concepts to operate the shelter, which according to officials, will operate from Nov. 15 through April 30, 2021.

The Lewiston-based nonprofit Community Concepts also teamed up with MaineHousing to run the temporary shelter at the Lewiston Armory this summer, part of a response to address the issue of homelessness in the age of COVID-19.

While that effort was deemed a success, officials said Tuesday that evidence suggests using hotels as temporary shelters yields better results in health and wellness and case management, as opposed to congregate settings.

But despite the council’s support for the temporary solution, several councilors and Mayor Mark Cayer questioned how the shelter fits into the city’s broader plans for addressing the issue.

Cayer has said repeatedly that homelessness must be addressed as a regional and statewide issue, and several councilors said they do not support calls for a permanent low-barrier shelter in Lewiston. A recent slate of recommendations from the city’s Housing Committee called for a series of measures, including utilizing vacant hotel rooms for temporary shelter, and establishing public bathrooms.

Shawn Yardley, CEO of Community Concepts, said Tuesday that similar temporary shelters are being utilized across the state as winter approaches and coronavirus cases increase. He said the organization “learned a lot from our experience in the summer” and that the shelter will connect guests with a range of resources and case management.

While many were placed in housing, about 60% of the 137 individuals who stayed at the Armory shelter ended up back on the streets, officials said.

However, Nate Libby, who has worked as a consultant on shelters for Community Concepts, said the longer time period and range of services prepared for guests this winter will lead to “having fewer folks in our community sleeping outside.”

“The winter period will give us more time to place people,” he said.

According to a council memo, the shelter will be staffed 24 hours a day, with basic needs like bathrooms, showers and food, which Libby said will be provided by The Green Ladle, the Lewiston-Auburn Technical Center kitchen.

Councilor Lee Clement said he had already heard concerns over the plan from constituents, and he decried the short timeline for public input. He also questioned the impact it could have on city services such as police and General Assistance.

Officials said it’s unlikely the city will see a jump in General Assistance costs, and that the majority of guests will be from the Lewiston-Auburn region. Yardley argued the city might see a reduction in General Assistance costs.

During the summer, Community Concepts contracted with the Lewiston Police Department for a constant presence at the Armory, where the city logged several neighborhood complaints.

Chris Bicknell, executive director of New Beginnings, said he was impressed by Community Concepts this summer, who scrambled to pull together a shelter in a matter of days, and ended up with one of the best in the state during the pandemic. He said homeless who stay in hotel rooms “have better outcomes” because they are safer, better fed and cared for.

Asked about how the hotel was chosen, Libby said “it was the hotel that was willing to work with us.” He said the Ramada, at 490 Pleasant St., has a bus stop nearby.

The homeless population in the Lewiston-Auburn area has limited access to three small private overnight shelters.

According to the memo, in response to the “varied dynamics of the COVID-19 epidemic, the area’s existing shelters are not able to adequately serve all of the people experiencing homelessness due to reduced operating capacity and a variety of restrictions on who they will accept. The number of unsheltered individuals heading into the cold weather months is of great concern.”

As for a more permanent solution, the council seems at a stalemate on how to proceed.

Councilor Alicia Rea said the city should be moving forward with establishing some kind of daytime warming shelter, but several officials said Lewiston needs to bring in regional partners to help.

Clement said he’s heard “over and over again” from constituents that they do not want to pay for a public, low-barrier homeless shelter.

Craig Saddlemire, chairman of the Housing Committee, said the committee also sees homelessness as a regional issue.

But, he said, “My main hope is we don’t use it as a reason to stop making progress on it.”

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