LEWISTON — City officials will consider an ordinance next week that would require Lewiston to provide emergency shelter within 48 hours of a request.

The “right to housing” ordinance, proposed by Councilor Safiya Khalid, is aimed at addressing the city’s homeless population, but city staff and a legal review have found issues with the proposal prior to a City Council workshop Tuesday.

Under the proposed ordinance, the city would have an obligation to provide any resident emergency shelter, located within the borders of the city, within 48 hours of a petition for emergency shelter. The city would be allowed to impose a fee on those sheltered, but could not deny shelter due to nonpayment of shelter fees.

According to the proposal, the city could not deny shelter for any reason, other than criminal conduct directly related to the provision or use of shelter provided by the city and the ordinance would allow any individual denied shelter in violation of the ordinance to bring a civil action against the city.

The Lewiston proposal mirrors similar initiatives across the country, most of which have proven controversial. New York City has a year-round “right to shelter” law, but similar proposals in California have been either vetoed by the Governor or are, in the case of Sacramento, still under the microscope.

In a memo to the council, City Attorney Martin Eisenstein said the ordinance as drafted could create, “broad obligations for the city to provide emergency shelter within 48 hours of a request, and significant legal exposure to the city for failing to meet the requirements of the ordinance.”

He said the language also overlaps and conflicts with the city’s own General Assistance program and would require a definition of the term “resident,” to avoid “those with no connection to the city to apply for the emergency shelter benefits and bring litigation in court if they are denied.”

Eisenstein did not include proposed edits of the ordinance, instead directing the City Council to decide whether it wants to pursue a standalone ordinance or one that integrates with the current General Assistance ordinance.

Elaine Brackett, director of Social Services, said in a memo that the proposal “would have a detrimental fiscal impact” on Lewiston taxpayers. She’s also concerned that the language would conflict with General Assistance eligibility standards, resulting in the loss of the 70% reimbursement Lewiston currently receives from the state.

Brackett said the definition of who is a resident will be key, as “there are no residency laws that prevent persons from other municipalities relocating to Lewiston to seek out a housing entitlement.”

The introduction of the ordinance is a symptom of complex housing challenges in the region that have driven up the cost of single-family homes and rental prices. The city’s hotel shelter for homeless individuals recently closed, coinciding with a historically tight housing market.

The Lewiston Housing Committee recently recommended that officials consider changes to allow accessory dwelling units, like in-law units or tiny homes, that can create more affordable housing options.

However, Brackett argued the proposed ordinance would result in Lewiston “being inundated” at a time when there’s little to no availability.

“Housing is in short supply and to expect that shelter can be provided within the borders of Lewiston is unreasonable if not at all possible,” she said.

She added that following the Blake Street fire on Sept. 11, which saw 18 families rendered homeless, her department placed families in motels in surrounding cities due to lack of vacancies at local motels. Three of the families ultimately relocated to other municipalities permanently, due to a lack of housing in Lewiston, she said.

Also on Tuesday, the council will consider an ordinance that would prohibit local police from inquiring into the immigration status of any person.

The proposed ordinance would prohibit Lewiston police officers from, “inquiring into the immigration status of any person and from engaging in activities for the purpose of ascertaining the immigration status of any person.”

Exceptions to the ordinance would be if the inquiry is “otherwise required by law or by court order,” or when a police officer has reasonable suspicion to believe that a person has previously been deported from the United States; is again present in the United States; or has committed a felony.

A resolution states the ordinance is tied to the people of Lewiston’s “right to feel safe in their interactions with the Lewiston Police Department,” as well as “have a right to seek service and protection from the Lewiston Police Department without worry about negative repercussions to themselves or their families.”

Eisenstein included an addition to the ordinance that would stipulate that nothing in the ordinance restricts the flow of information to and from federal authorities, which he said would put it more in line with federal law.


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