The Ramada Hotel and Conference Center in Lewiston is being used as a “winter wellness shelter” until April 2021. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal

LEWISTON — Officials said Monday they are pleased with the temporary homeless shelter at Lewiston’s Ramada Hotel, which was at capacity within two days of opening.

Now, they are hoping to serve as many people as possible through the winter.

The 28-bed shelter operated by nonprofit Community Concepts, approved by the City Council last month just days before it opened to the public, is intended as a backstop in local efforts to address homelessness during the pandemic.

Shawn Yardley, CEO of Community Concepts, said Monday the effort has so far “gone well,” and that the ultimate goal of those involved is to connect the region’s unhoused to services in hopes of securing them more permanent housing.

He said compared to the organization’s previous effort at the Lewiston Armory this past summer, a range of services was made available to shelter guests at the Ramada almost immediately. At the Armory, it took a few weeks to get coordinated, he said.

The wellness shelter is connecting people to case management services from Tri-County Mental Health, ASI, and Ascentria. Daily wellness checks are provided by a nurse from Androscoggin Home Healthcare. The organizations, combined with more stable and private hotel accommodations, could be the key difference, officials have said.

When the Armory shelter closed, officials said about 60% of the 137 individuals who stayed at the shelter ended up back on the streets. That shelter had a 60-bed capacity, with little to no privacy.

“The more people we can move quickly through to something better, it opens up beds to the next in line that need the service,” he said. “We recognize that the need is much greater than 28 beds.”

During the initial City Council discussion last month, 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.

The organization is not keeping a waiting list, mostly because the need is too great, and could give those on the list “false hope,” Yardley said Monday. He said staff will connect people to other services and shelters when they don’t have availability.

The shelter is situated in its own wing of the hotel in order to accommodate separate entrances and additional COVID-19 protocols for shelter guests. Guests were required to present a negative COVID-19 test prior to receiving a room after the Nov. 15 opening, and the shelter is staffed 24 hours by Community Concepts.

City Administrator Denis D’Auteuil said Monday he was not aware of any complaints made against the Ramada shelter or its guests so far.

Prior to opening the wellness shelter, Community Concepts ran a separate, smaller shelter at the hotel for COVID-19-positive people, including first responders and others who are not homeless. Yardley said a small number of beds are still dedicated to that need, but that they have never been at capacity.

Prior to opening, homeless advocates, including the city’s Housing Committee, said hotel shelters can provide an added layer of safety and support for homeless individuals during the pandemic. Yardley said Monday it was also pursued quickly because there were “not a lot of options, and it’s cold outside.”

While elected officials largely supported the hotel shelter, they have so far not agreed on larger, longterm goals for addressing homelessness, including a series of recommendations made by the Housing Committee. Those recommendations have continued calls for a low-barrier, public overnight shelter and other short-term measures, such as public bathrooms and a warming center.

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

An earlier memorandum to the council described the situation caused by COVID-19, stating: “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.”

The shelter is funded by MaineHousing, which contracted with Community Concepts and other vendors to provide services.

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