Jasmine Monteiro, left, helps Claudia Pedro fill out her application paperwork on Wednesday at the Wellness Shelter in Lewiston. All staff members at the shelter were offered the opportunity to continue in their positions after Preble Street Shelter took over the management. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

LEWISTON — A 28-bed wellness shelter at the Ramada hotel will remain open through September, with Portland-based Preble Street taking over shelter management.

The extended timeline appeared to catch at least a few councilors by surprise this week when they were updated on the shelter operations. Several said they were concerned that a shelter that was intended to be temporary would now be open for more than a year, and largely without council or public feedback.

However, those managing the effort say the shelter’s funding source, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, has extended support through September, and that they can use the extra months to find permanent or transitional housing for shelter guests.

Lewiston nonprofit Community Concepts, which has operated both the wellness shelter and Lewiston Armory shelter, announced it will step back from its management role, but that a vast majority of its shelter staff will remain in place for Preble Street.

The hotel shelter, which began as a 16-room quarantine shelter last year, was expanded as a winter wellness shelter in November, adding 16 more rooms for people experiencing homelessness. It was originally slated to close April 30.

During a City Council workshop Tuesday, a majority of councilors said they support the effort but have been disappointed in a lack of communication. Some argued the city can’t continue to support these programs alone.

“Lewiston does a lot already,” said Councilor Luke Jensen, adding that he was surprised to hear it was continuing. “We’ve done a lot already, maybe it’s someone else’s turn.”

Mayor Mark Cayer delivered similar comments, stating that Lewiston has several organizations already serving vulnerable populations. He also echoed concerns for the continued use of the Ramada hotel.

“Our largest hotel, just off the interstate, is not the place we should be having a shelter,” he said. “It will be the first thing that visitors to our community will see. I think Lewiston has absolutely stepped up to the plate with the shelter at the Armory, and even then we had a deadline we were told, but it shifted to another location at the request of MaineHousing. Lewiston has five shelters, and some people are critical of our faith-based ones, but I’m not. They’ve provided a service to our community for decades. Tell me another community in our region that has done even 10% of what our community has done for the homeless.”

Ward 7 Councilor Stephanie Gelinas, who lives near the Ramada, said she has not received any constituent complaints regarding the shelter.

Steven McDermott, strategic planning and outreach coordinator for MaineHousing, which has overseen both shelter efforts, said officials are ramping up efforts to “depopulate” the hotel, through helping individuals find more appropriate transitional or permanent housing. He assured officials that the shelter remains only “a temporary solution to a problem exacerbated by COVID-19.”

He said after speaking with the mayor and other city officials recently, he contacted all five of Lewiston’s local shelters.

“One of the things we heard is that it used to take about three months to support someone in finding permanent or transitional housing,” he said. “The average for the local shelters is now closer to six months for an individual with resources, longer for others.”

The wellness shelter program has also taken on an infrastructure of its own, with 23 jobs, the involvement of several case management organizations, Lewiston’s The Green Ladle, and contracts with laundry and cleaning services. The Green Ladle, operated by the Lewiston Regional Technical Center, partnered with several restaurants to provide three meals a day for the shelter.

Danny Caron, culinary arts instructor at Lewiston Regional Technical Center, said he’s been told from restaurant partners that without the program, especially during the height of the pandemic, some would have been forced to lay off staff or close altogether.

Asked on Tuesday why Preble Street was stepping in, Community Concepts CEO Shawn Yardley said the organization never intended to get into the business of managing shelters. After operating the Armory shelter, then the quarantine and wellness shelters, Yardley said he told city officials Community Concepts was sticking to the April end date. Yardley said he contacted Preble Street so that Lewiston had an option “that wasn’t just turning 28 people out on the street.”

Mark Swann, Preble Street executive director, said the organization had been planning with Community Concepts and MaineHousing for several weeks, and have held meetings with current staff. Almost all current employees plan to continue under Preble Street, he said.

“We have no intention of fixing something that isn’t broken,” he said.

Megan Parks, who is also chairwoman of the Lewiston School Committee, said she plans to stay on as shelter director.

Other councilors said their concerns lie with the hotel’s zoning, which does not allow shelters.

Councilor Lee Clement said the shelter is now “in direct conflict with our zoning ordinances,” and said if the shelter is in violation now, “a notice of violation should be served on them.”

The hotel is still in operation, however, which muddies Clement’s argument.

MaineHousing operates a shelter at a Ramada in Bangor, and zoning has not been a source of contention, McDermott said.

“Why are we different than other cities?” Councilor Safiya Khalid asked. “We need to support our most vulnerable population until FEMA ends its funding.”

“The word temporary has been thrown about here,” Clement said. “We were never included in a conversation about where this was going to extend beyond April 30, and that really crossed me. We were just disregarded entirely.”

McDermott said the lack of communication with councilors was accidental.

Councilor Alica Rea said passing off management to Preble Street is “responsible,” given its experience, but added, “the point of friction” is that there hasn’t been an opportunity for the public to weigh in.

“They’ve been deprived a say in this,” she said.

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