People console each other Monday as rescue workers revive someone who overdosed in Kennedy Park in Lewiston. Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal

LEWISTON — For police, it’s become a numbers game. The complaints are many.

People sleeping in the doorways of downtown businesses. Discarded syringes all over the place. Overdoses and drunken behavior. Human waste in public places. 

As businesses and residents complain more and more about the situation in downtown Lewiston, many are drawing links to the growing homeless population there.

“It’s one of our biggest call volumes lately,” Police Chief David St. Pierre said of the increase in calls about the city’s homeless. 

It’s a tricky business all around. Police officers down in the trenches have been mandated, by the Attorney General’s Office, to give the homeless as many chances as possible when they misbehave; issue warnings instead of making arrests, be supportive and offer help. 

Police have been offering assistance to the homeless, with the help of trained social workers in the Project Support You program and through a three-month-old initiative called Neighborhood First, aimed at lowering the number of quality of life service calls received by the department. 


It all looks so good on paper: the homeless are offered assistance with substance abuse, housing issues, mental health — whatever they might need, those social workers can probably help to make it happen. 

Yet police have been adamant all along: most of the homeless men and women here want nothing to do with any of that. They don’t want the resources police are offering, they say. Though there are a few who do accept help, it doesn’t do much to offset the number of homeless people within the city because more are coming all the time. 

“We help two and fifteen more move in,” Police Lt. Derrick St. Laurent said. “Now what do we do?” 

What they do is what they have been doing since the homeless crisis became the hottest of all hot-button issues within the community: they’re trying to address the complaints of business owners and other citizens while also treating the homeless as fairly as possible. 

A Lewiston police officer speaks June 21 with a homeless person in Kennedy Park in Lewiston. Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal


The matter of homelessness has become a heated political issue and yet management of the homeless population falls mainly on the shoulders of the rank and file police officers on regular patrols. These are cops tasked with moving the homeless along when they are interfering with business or causing problems in other ways. They are the ones to break up fights and crack down on flagrant drug and alcohol use when they see it, doing it as politely as possible and offering help when they can.


But on the other side, those beat cops also have to contend with angry business owners and others who insist that whatever is being done about the homeless, it isn’t enough. 

Chief St. Pierre doesn’t quite know what the answer is, but he insists that his officers are doing all that they can to keep both sides of the issue as happy as possible. 

“I applaud my police officers for what they’re doing out there every single day,” St. Pierre said. “They’re doing their best to support and help these people. The officers are starting foot beat patrols. They’re getting out of their cars and they’re walking around. They’re talking to business people; they’re talking to community members in various places. They’re doing property site checks like crazy, they’re doing proactive patrols and their doing field interviews. They’re just out there in the community, talking to people and trying to be supportive.” 

And then you have drugs and liquor and all the problems that go with the abuse of these things. A significant portion of a given homeless population is addicted to one substance or another, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, which estimates that roughly 38% of the homeless suffer from an alcohol dependency while 26% abuse drugs. 

In Lewiston, there is evidence of that all over the place. 

“In my 30 years here I’ve never seen as many drugs, or evidence of drug use,” St. Pierre said. “We have needles constantly being reported and they are found in places where there’s a concern for children and such. We have people who are clearly under the influence creating loud disturbances and problems.” 


It’s gotten to the point where police say they are spending significant chunks of their time in Kennedy Park, in parking garages or on lower Lisbon Street where homeless people gather. Sometimes, after three or four or five warnings issued, police have to arrest a homeless person who will not cease their criminal behavior. And yet, making an arrest doesn’t always resolve the issue for long. 

“It’s disheartening,” St. Pierre said, “when those officers haven’t even completed their reports yet and they see the person that they arrested two hours ago walking down the street. 

“The frustrations we have,” the chief said, “are very similar to the frustrations that the community and the businesses have.” 


Some Lewiston residents say they will no longer spend time in Kennedy Park or the vicinity because they don’t feel safe there anymore. Even when there are no active problems, the sight of the homeless encampments in Kennedy Park, with their makeshift tents and shopping carts heaped high with belongings, is enough to keep some away. 

Frequent brawls and scuffles are reported all over the downtown, including on the medians and busy street corners dominated by panhandlers. The sight of the homeless hunkered down on sidewalks in front of Lisbon Street businesses is a common one.


Many, if not most, of those people are harmless and law abiding. But for someone looking to shop or eat in that area, wading into that kind of landscape can be intimidating. Maybe they decide it’s not worth the risk and the businesses there lose out. 

Lewiston Mayor Carl Sheline doesn’t question that downtown businesses are hurt by the homelessness crisis. But, he said, whenever a potential solution is offered, it is struck down. 

“There is no question that the effects of homelessness and panhandling are having a negative impact on downtown businesses, including mine,” Sheline said. “Unfortunately, there seems to be little appetite on the part of the council to take any substantive corrective action as witnessed by the vote to deny the recent shelter application. I will continue to advocate for meaningful solutions.” 

A homeless man sleeps on the sidewalk at the corner of Main and Lincoln Streets on May 22 in Lewiston.  Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal

There is also the question of whether the homeless population here will continue to grow. It’s hard to dispute that there are more homeless in the downtown than there were a year ago, but some will argue that appearances may be deceiving. More homeless people are visible now that warmer weather has arrived, for one thing. And taking any kind of census of the homeless population would be difficult — the homeless tend to be mobile by necessity. 

“They might be in Auburn today and in Lewiston tomorrow,” St. Pierre said. “Then they get shipped up to Augusta for a while and then they’re in Brunswick or whatever. Basically what they’re doing is they’re searching for whatever resources they can find that will benefit them.” 

Some might be attracted to Lewiston because the people here are known to be sympathetic. There are churches and other groups who offer at least one daily meal for anyone who needs one. Word spreads fast about that kind of thing. People who have been unhoused for a while — including those from other states — are drawn to areas where they can get these kinds of services. 


“The people we’re seeing on the street didn’t just get evicted last weekend,” St. Laurent said.”It’s people who are moving here for the resources. If you’re homeless, you’re going to go somewhere you know you can get a free meal every day.” 

Lewiston police have been generating reports on how effective their various programs have been in mitigating problems associated with the homeless crisis. The reports draw data from various sources, including the department’s Crime Reduction and Community Resource teams as well as Project Support You. 

The next report is expected to be made available in mid-July. 

In Auburn, the homeless are mainly seen on medians and corners near the shopping centers. Others tend to live in camps in the area of Moulton Park, generally away from businesses. Whether the number of homeless in that city is growing as they are in Lewiston is unknown. Auburn police and city officials didn’t respond to questions about the issue.

Back in Lewiston, police said as the homeless population continues to rise, they will keep doing what they’ve been doing all along: addressing issues as they arise and offering as much help to the unhoused as they can. There aren’t a lot of alternatives, frankly.

“I don’t know what the answers are,” St. Pierre said. “We’re in hopes that all of the efforts that we’re putting forward is not all for nothing.”

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