Scott Savage, left, chats Saturday with a friend outside of the First Universalist Church of Auburn. Savage had been camping on the church’s lawn before the city of Auburn required the church to remove all of the campers. He has found temporary housing in Lewiston with the help of the Pleasant Street Drop-in Center, and still stops in to socialize and get assistance. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal

AUBURN — Earlier last week, before the City Council unanimously supported a resolution asking the state for more help in addressing homelessness, Auburn resident Mike Gilligan stepped to the microphone during public comment.

“We can’t throw up our hands and look to someone else to help,” he told the council.

The resolution states that municipalities, including Auburn, “do not have the expertise or resources to provide the additional services which would be beneficial to many of the community members who are unhoused,” and that “the housing crisis cannot be solved without uniform policies, state coordination, and cooperation between municipalities.”

Gilligan said he supports the effort to gain more state resources, but said local government also needs to step up.

“These people aren’t going away. You can’t shove them in the corner somewhere,” he said.

The resolution, and Gilligan’s comments, came a week after the city ordered the First Universalist Church of Auburn to remove a homeless encampment from its lawn due to multiple zoning and public health law violations. What had started as a drop-in center in the church’s basement providing services to the unhoused had grown into a situation with no good outcomes.


Neighbors were getting fed up with trash and disturbances. Police were being called. And while city staff were working on solutions with church officials, by all accounts the efforts to find housing for those on the property were moving too slowly to offset neighborhood safety concerns.

Church officials and homeless advocates said this week that the encampment was a symptom of unmet needs in the community, including a lack of an overnight shelter. Auburn’s zoning, citywide, does not allow overnight homeless shelters, except for survivors of domestic abuse and human trafficking, for which some beds are available.

A tarp covers a gathering spot Thursday on the banks of the Little Androscoggin River in Auburn. With no shelters and few services in Auburn, unhoused people are left to create their own places to survive. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal

When the last of the tents came down at the Pleasant Street church, some people had been rehoused, but some simply returned to the woods as winter approaches.

“In the absence of adequate public services and resources, we get members of the public operating small charities being faced with impossible situations,” said Craig Saddlemire, who recently served as co-chairman of Lewiston’s shelter committee.

Following a monthslong debate over a new shelter ordinance in Lewiston and the very visible homelessness issue on both sides of the Androscoggin River, some advocates, and even city officials, are pressing Auburn to rethink current policies.



A few weeks ago, the Lewiston City Council ended months of contentious talks with a set of new shelter regulations, which stipulates where and how shelters can operate. The city currently has 88 beds between four private shelters, but the new regulations could result in additional beds.

Saddlemire and the committee, through a comprehensive report, provided officials with staggering data on homelessness in Maine, and while the committee was tasked with providing information and recommendations to Lewiston officials, a section of the report looks at the rest of Androscoggin County, including Auburn.

The shelter committee recommended the overall development of 51 to 119 more shelter beds to meet the need of Lewiston residents and another 30 to 40 shelter beds to meet the needs in Androscoggin County. The report states the 30 to 40 additional beds could be developed in other towns in Androscoggin County, but urges Auburn to consider broader changes given its homeless population. 

The recommendations also state that because Lewiston and Auburn share some federal funding to address homelessness, and “given that homeless individuals clearly travel within both cities in search of help, it is recommended that the cities begin planning for and coordinating development efforts in a collaborative manner.”

City Manager Phil Crowell said staff has been following the work of the Lewiston City Council and has reviewed the shelter committee’s final report, but said “staff has not been approached by Lewiston staff” regarding collaboration on the report’s recommendations.

Likewise, when asked this week, Lewiston City Administrator Heather Hunter said Lewiston and Auburn officials have “not yet” engaged in discussions about how to coordinate potential shelter development.


Daniel Foss sweeps up dirt Saturday at the Pleasant Street Drop-in Center in Auburn. Foss was living in what he calls “tent city” on the lawn of the First Universalist Church of Auburn last month for three or four weeks. He found housing with the help of the Drop-in Center and comes back to help out. “I help out, and do odd jobs,” Foss said. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal

One of the report’s recommendations asks Auburn to consider including a definition of “emergency shelter” in its zoning ordinance, especially as the city considers making other zoning changes to “increase housing choice and opportunity throughout the city.” Without a definition of emergency shelter, they can’t be considered anywhere in the city.

According to the report, 26% of people sheltered at the Ramada emergency shelter in Lewiston last year had their previous address in Auburn.

Lewiston Councilor Rick Lachapelle, who was among the city’s most vocal as officials debated the new regulations on homeless shelters, said Lewiston “has clearly taken the lead” in addressing the issue. But, he said, Lewiston needs help from Auburn and the rest of Androscoggin County.

As one of the proponents of a controversial six-month moratorium on new shelters this spring, Lachapelle said he felt “unfairly criticized” for seeking to regulate new shelters. During the shelter committee process, he questioned why the council was considering numbers that reflected the demand for shelter beds countywide, instead of asking officials to focus solely on Lewiston.

“I would encourage Auburn to step forward and participate in solving the problem of homelessness,” he said. “From the Lewiston side, I would be more than happy to assist Auburn in any way to help formulate a shelter ordinance. We have spent the last seven months doing this. This cannot be just a Portland, Lewiston, or Bangor issue. Every community has to get involved in some level.”



Auburn officials say they are responding to homelessness by addressing the very related housing crisis, which has pushed housing prices and rents to record levels. The data, which says the lack of affordable housing is the No. 1 cause of homelessness, backs it up.

The City Council has put a lot of time into rezoning discussions, with the end goal of giving property owners more options that will result in more housing units in the city, but many have questioned how much “affordable” housing will come from the efforts.

Crowell said there is “no single strategy sufficient to address the needs of the unhoused” in Auburn, but said policies encouraging infill development, allowing accessory dwelling units, eliminating unnecessary permits and fees for housing, and eliminating certain fees for veterans are part of that work.

He said the city has recently submitted an application to Maine Housing for an Accessory Dwelling Unit program, which if approved, will provide $500,000 in funding to assist individuals in adding an ADU to their property. He said the rental rate for the units would be at or below the fair market rent set by HUD and require the renter to be below 80% of the area median income.

The City Council also reviewed details this week of a program that would create pre-approved housing plans to eliminate some costs for people. City officials believe that as more housing units are created, even if the majority are market rate, it will make other housing types more affordable.

“Auburn believes these actions are all strategies to improve the current housing crisis, which will have a positive impact on the unhoused,” Crowell said.


When asked if the city would be considering zoning changes that allow for emergency shelters, Mayor Jason Levesque said that as a service center, “the services needed by those experiencing temporary homelessness are in Lewiston, so it makes sense to keep a shelter near to those services.”

“Auburn has been and stands by to assist financially or in any other way to make this a reality while also focusing on a broad range of stable housing options,” he said. “The key to solving homelessness is to have homes.”

Lewiston Mayor Carl Sheline agreed that as a service center, Lewiston “serves a large amount of people who are unhoused.” But, he said, “undoubtedly, all surrounding municipalities and people who need help would benefit from a regional approach.”

The resolution passed by the Auburn council this week asked for “increased state involvement for better outcomes for those unhoused,” and also requests that the Governor’s Office “create a formal working group to improve state and local responses” to homelessness.

It goes onto say that the federal government, “through various policies, including but not limited to those that impact asylum seekers, are contributing to the challenges of serving the needs of the unhoused.”

Responding to the public comment from Auburn resident Gilligan this week, Levesque said the resolution is similar to ones supported by other municipalities, and that the city has other approaches in the works. The city approved higher General Assistance maximums on Monday, and in the past year has used American Rescue Plan Act funds for two Project Support You positions — individuals who work alongside police to connect those struggling with addiction or homelessness to needed services. It’s unclear whether those positions will be permanently funded.


This week, when the council approved spending $700,000 in ARPA money on $300 tax relief checks for seniors, Councilor Ryan Hawes voted against it. He said he had heard from constituents asking that the money be used for more impactful programs, including more “community services.”

Councilor Dana Staples responded that the resolution is “the first of many steps we need to take.”

“There’s a big problem here and I think we need to do this and more,” he said.


The church encampment was at least the second time this year the city has taken enforcement action on homeless camps. In both instances, city officials said it was done for public health reasons.

City administration has also argued that it doesn’t simply force people away, but instead posts warnings and attempts to connect people with services.


In May, the city razed homeless encampments along the Little Androscoggin River, but there’s ample evidence the area is still being used for makeshift camps.

Along the rough series of paths following the river this week were random clumps of trash, debris and personal items — everything from tarps and blankets to packages of wet wipes and empty food and beer cans. There were a few fire pits, some made with large stones, which had been used recently. One tent along the river was still set up, but appeared empty. Nearby, a seatless bicycle leaned against a tree.

Not far away, at the Fabric Warehouse on Washington Street, owner Tim Riley stepped outside into the sun. Around the corner from the building is the end of a parking lot that leads onto railroad tracks that run between the river and Route 100. Some unhoused people use his property as a cut through to the area. Not far down the train tracks was a mass of clothing and other items.

Riley said he’s sympathetic to the people he sees, and remains that way because so far it hasn’t caused any issues with his employees or business. When told Auburn doesn’t have an overnight shelter and has zoning that prevents them, he said it’s “unbelievable.” But, he’s also surprised that so many people use the area to find shelter given a perceived lack of services in the vicinity.

Or, he thought, maybe they’re just trying to get out of sight to sleep in peace.

A tent sits empty Thursday on the banks of the Little Androscoggin River in Auburn. Many homeless people camp on the banks of the river where they are close to services, but less likely to be chased away. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal

Along the Little Androscoggin River this week, one homeless man was returning to the woods, moving slowly down a steep embankment until it met a footpath along the river. He declined to speak to a Sun Journal reporter, and quietly slipped through a clump of overgrown bushes and disappeared.


Individuals supporting the church drop-in center say Auburn city staff has been helping as much as they can, but they criticized city policies, particularly the zoning language that does not allow for shelters.

A week after the encampment was gone, the Rev. Jodi Hayashida said the arrival of unhoused community members on the church property highlights a need for more resources in Auburn.

“Auburn leadership knows that our city has unhoused community members and yet continues to support zoning that does not permit an overnight shelter, razes the encampments around the city that provide collective safety and support to the people living in them, and does not offer enough resources to ensure all our citizens will have any other kind of protection at all,” she said. “My experience is that city staff work tirelessly to provide as much support as they can within the confines of their roles, but individual commitment cannot fully address the wounds caused by policy violence.”

Hayashida believes that at a bare minimum, Auburn needs to rezone to permit some kind of overnight shelter. She also believes that some kind of working group should be organized to discuss “both the barriers and pathways to long-term success.”

After 22 years as a reverend, Hayashida recently announced this would be her last year at the church, but said it wasn’t due to the recent controversy.

“Most settled ministries are about five to seven years. I’ve been here for 22. It’s time for the church to welcome in someone new,” she said.


Greg Whitney, who has worked to coordinate the church’s drop-in center, said there seems to be “very few services available in Auburn,” especially on the weekends. The center remains open on Saturdays and Sundays, he said. The Sunday after the encampment was removed, the center saw 45 guests, which he said “is by far a record.”

He believes the majority of the tenters moved somewhere into the woods — “out of sight, out of mind” — but said they were successful in connecting a handful of people with a room or apartment.

The drop-in center is also open Wednesday mornings to help people with housing, finances and the General Assistance program, and Whitney said they’ve been getting help from several local service providers.

Casey-Lyn Floyd, one of the co-chairs of the drop-in center, had similar thoughts. She said that while some city staff have been helpful, “what they can’t do is change the zoning. That takes more public awareness and discussion.”

“Without people writing to the city councilors, without voices at City Hall, without the action of the public, the unhoused will remain unhoused,” she said.

Late this week, the center was awarded a $10,000 “rapid response ” grant from the Elmina B. Sewall Foundation.



Saddlemire, who recently had a front-row seat to the weeks of debate among Lewiston officials, agrees that the housing crisis, and the homelessness issue exacerbated by it, is a statewide problem.

“Communities are left to figure it out alone, which is not ideal,” he said. “We should have broad, comprehensive strategies to address it.”

But, he said, Auburn is a big city, and is “aspiring to be as big as Lewiston,” meaning it’s also a service center. He added that if Auburn is “truly interested in helping to address the housing crisis,” an overnight shelter is not a permanent solution, “but it is an important transitional step.”

Saddlemire said a family shelter, the only place in the county that a homeless family can stay together if they lose their home, recently opened in Leeds.

He believes that if Auburn decides not to change its zoning rules, it could at least expand the number of shelter beds for victims of domestic violence. For women, domestic violence is one of the leading causes of homelessness.


In the short term, some are concerned that things are going the wrong way just before winter.

Megan Parks, a homeless advocate who proposed a 24-hour transitional resource center in Lewiston last year, which led to the shelter ordinance debate, said that while encampments are being shut down, other bad news came within the past week. MaineHousing’s emergency rental assistance program, which has prevented hundreds of people from becoming homeless, has been paused. All new applications are on hold as the agency waits to hear from the federal government regarding additional funding.

“The visible unhoused population in Lewiston-Auburn is about to increase rapidly with no safety net in place,” she said. “The nights are reaching close to freezing and the situation is truly dire. It’s heartbreaking.”

After the Auburn church encampment came down, drop-in center members filmed a short series of videos interviewing Mike Rodan, who had been staying there.

Originally from New York City, Rodan said he was a supervisor at the Lewiston Armory shelter during the pandemic. He said that like a lot of homeless people, he likes to “stay hidden from everybody because I’m embarrassed of the situation I’m in.”

He said the help available to the unhoused is limited, and what is available is “a long process.”

“It’s hard to work or do anything else when living in a tent. It messes with your mental state, it really drains you,” he said. “I’m in that situation now, and I’m stuck.”

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