People crowd into the Lewiston City Council meeting Tuesday at City Hall to weigh in on a proposed moratorium on homeless shelters in the city. Councilors moved forward on a proposed moratorium on shelters. Daryn Slover/Sun Journal

LEWISTON — After more than two hours of passionate pleas, debate and a fair bit of shouting from a standing-room-only crowd, the City Council moved forward Tuesday on a proposed moratorium on homeless shelters.

City staff will draft a moratorium ordinance for the council to consider in the coming weeks, raising the possibility of a six-month pause aimed at a shelter and resource center project previously brought forward by a group of residents.

While some said city officials, the resource center team and other stakeholders should work together in a task force or similar effort without the need for a moratorium, a majority of the council said the official break was needed for more research on the complicated issue.

The idea of a moratorium, which can last up to 180 days after enacted, was brought forward after the council was presented with a proposal for a low-barrier, 24-bed transitional resource center, an issue that has since led to controversy over building negotiations as well as tremendous debate on social media.

The council was met with a massive response at City Hall. During a lengthy public comment period that saw dozens of people speak, all but five people spoke against the moratorium. Many shared personal stories of their own experience with homelessness or in working with the homeless in Lewiston.

Many argued that Lewiston is a service center that is extremely lacking in its homeless services, especially in direct support from the city itself.


The four councilors in favor of the moratorium — Lee Clement, Larry Pease, Rick Lachapelle and Robert McCarthy — repeated similar comments, stating they are not opposed to a homeless shelter, but believe the city should take the time to get it right. However, other councilors pointed out that a moratorium isn’t needed in order to hash out the details of the proposed project.

“We are not the dark side. Lewiston does care and I care,” Lachapelle said.

“I’m not against a shelter, but I am against one that is run willy-nilly,” Clement said. “We need this timeout.”


In the packed crowd, people held signs that said “shelter is a human right,” and “no moratorium,” coupled with the person’s ward so their councilor could see.

Megan Parks, who has led the effort to develop the resource center, argued that the necessary regulations for shelters are already in place, including in the city’s existing zoning ordinances.


According to David Hediger, director of Planning and Code Enforcement, shelters are permitted as a conditional use in the Downtown Residential and Neighborhood Conservation B zoning districts. Conditional uses require approval from the Board of Appeals or Planning Board.

Councilor Linda Scott said she’d received numerous calls and emails from constituents, with all but three opposed to the moratorium. While she said she’s concerned for how the debate has spilled over onto social media, she said she’s “ashamed” the city hasn’t acted in a meaningful way on homelessness.

“I do not feel the comprehensive plan put forth deserves a response wrapped up in a moratorium,” said Councilor Stephanie Gelinas, who was also opposed Tuesday. “We can’t postpone this issue any longer.”

The same arguments were made over and over from the public, including from former councilors and School Committee members, School Department employees who work with homeless youth, and property owners who want to see more solutions to an issue they argue is hurting business.

Billie-Jayne Cooke, co-owner of the Agora Grand on Bates Street, said if “Lewiston is eager to attract new businesses to the city” it should address homelessness. She said the event center loses several weddings each year because prospective clients are scared away by the situation there.

“There are people laying all over my property, at the park. They have no place to go during the day,” she said, adding that a “moratorium would worsen this.”


Many said the city should not squander the efforts of residents who came to the city with a plan, after the city has failed to take substantive action for years.

Allie Smith, former chairwoman of the city’s Housing Committee, said now is the time for the city to take advantage of federal resources. She said the city’s private shelters are not required to participate in official counts, meaning Lewiston is “systematically undercounted,” which has limited federal resources in the past.

The city has four shelters but none provide 24-hour service, and they can turn people away for several reasons, including arriving late, substance use, previous stay bans, lack of identification and religious reasons.


Those in favor of the proposal, like property owner Chris Aceto, said he doesn’t like the idea of a low-barrier shelter. He said he also owns property in Portland, and said low-barrier shelters bring in people from other states, and are the reason the city is now putting up hundreds in local hotels.

“The idea that if you build it, they will come, that’s exactly what happened in Portland,” he said.


Councilor McCarthy said, “We have a serious problem. We have to do it right. Some of the aspects of the program is something we’ve needed for years. A one-stop shop for services. My question is over low-barrier.”

Many have been quick to respond that the issue is already in Lewiston, and that a 24-bed shelter will have a limited impact on the scope of the issue, but that it’s a start.

Around 9 p.m., Mayor Carl Sheline conferred with the city administrator, and public comment was shifted to a one-minute limit in order to move the proceedings along. Many people were cut off during remarks.

Sheline on several occasions told the audience not to shout or interrupt councilors. At one point, when Clement repeated past comments regarding a police presence at the former Lewiston Armory shelter, Parks shouted from the crowd, “That is a lie.”

When Clement and others floated the idea of a possible referendum on the shelter, members of the audience applauded in favor.

Larry Pease, whose Ward 5 encompasses much of the downtown neighborhood, had so far been silent on the issue, not commenting during the previous workshop when the council heard the resource center plan. He said he had since been criticized for the silence.

Prior to voting in favor of the measure Tuesday, he said, “I’m not against shelters. I listen before I shoot my mouth off.”

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