Lewiston eyes extra restrictive coverage on tenting on public property

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A two-storey building stands on the edge of a Lewiston homeless camp on November 11. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal file

LEWISTON – City officials are looking to add more restrictive language regarding loitering, camping or sleeping on city properties in response to recent enforcement actions at camps for homeless people.

Police Chief David St Pierre said that while existing signage in various parks prohibits use during nighttime hours, the city is looking to strengthen its rules regarding other urban properties, including forested areas.

City Council on Tuesday first reading voted 6-1 to add wording prohibiting camping or sleeping on city-owned lots and clarifying that properties “including woods are closed during this period, making it unlawful to be present.” without special circumstances.”

City officials said the new wording will be reviewed by legal counsel and changes would likely be made before a final reading of the amendment, scheduled for Dec. 20.

The discussion comes as both Lewiston and Auburn — along with other large communities — are grappling with a homelessness crisis.

St. Pierre said camps of homeless people have been found more frequently this year, but that a camp near Sunnyside Park, owned by the city, has prompted several complaints from the public.

He said there was a report of someone being “chased out” from the recreation area before the city took enforcement action on the camp this fall. The city released notices and tried to connect people with a range of services before taking action, officials said.

Councilor Scott Harriman, who voted against the new language, said the way the proposed language was written “it sounds like nobody can be in a park after dark”.

“From what I’ve read, I can’t go home through the park after this meeting,” he said.

The proposed wording states: “It is unlawful to stop, loiter, camp, sleep, be or be on any school property, the grounds of any community building, community building, municipal cemetery or park, field or woods of any community recreational facility or playing field or any other property controlled or maintained by the City between the hours of sunset and sunrise the following day, unless such person is lawfully employed and participating in a program or activity sponsored or approved by the City.

Harriman also said that if the council takes that action, “we should also do something helpful to give them a place to go as far as a shelter or something.” The city doesn’t have a 24-hour Accommodation, which has been the cause of months of talks – and a new protection order – in Lewiston.

Recent efforts to work with the City of Auburn and the Androscoggin County Government on a winter shelter have failed.

St. Pierre said the purpose of the language was to prohibit people from staying for any length of time or “to set up camp there without proper needs.” He said another component dealt with Lewiston’s perceived ‘image’.

He said the camps found by police were “areas devastated by unsanitary items and rubbish” and the city removed 9,000 pounds of clothing, tents and other items from a recent camp.

Councilor Stephanie Gelinas said the process at the Sunnyside Park camp was thoughtful as it reached out to people with resources, including the city’s Project Support You staff. She said she would support the added phrase “as long as this thoughtful, intentional process is carried out” going forward.

Councilor Lee Clement said he has “full confidence in the[Police Department]that we’re not just going to go out there and hire railroad workers.”

He said after leaves fell from the trees this autumn, the scope of the camps around Lewiston and Auburn was shown. He said one camp has a “two-story tree house.”

“We need to give the police the right tools to deal with these problems,” he said.

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