With the increase in homelessness in Augusta, officials seek solutions-CentralMaine.com

2021-11-13 09:08:22 By : Ms. Jessie Zhou

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When Robin Oviatt was deported earlier this year, the only refuge she could find was a tent she built and pop-up canopies covered with tarps. Now, the Augusta city government and officials from non-profit organizations dedicated to finding housing for those in need are considering their options, including opening a new emergency homeless shelter.

On Thursday, Robin Oviatt stood outside her shelter at the campsite she rented in Augusta, holding her white cane in his hand. The blue tarp covers the pop-up canopy with a tent underneath. She lost her apartment in March. Joe Phelan/Kennebeck Magazine

Augusta-Robin Oviatt was evicted from the apartment in March and has been unable to find an affordable place to stay, so she is in the city park in Augusta Built his own temporary shelter next to him.

Oviat, 50, is not alone. She said she has recently seen a significant increase in the number of homeless people in the state capital and its surrounding areas, and she expects to see more as some of the eviction protection measures implemented during the COVID-19 pandemic expire.

Now that the number of homeless people in Augusta is increasing as winter approaches, officials are exploring options to help people stay away from the streets, including possible emergency homeless shelters.

On Thursday, city officials are expected to meet with representatives of organizations working on housing issues to address the problems caused by the lack of affordable housing in central Maine.

Augusta City officials also noticed an increase in the number of homeless people in the city.

In recent extensive discussions about homelessness, some lawmakers said that the city needs to work with social service agencies and other partners to find long-term solutions. But as the winter is approaching and housing is in short supply, they also said that the city needs to consider opening emergency shelters as soon as possible to provide shelter from the cold at night for the homeless.

The persistent problems have recently become worse. The two Augusta hotels have chosen not to cooperate with the Kennebec Valley Community Action Plan for the long-term resettlement of the homeless. The Edwards House in Augusta used to be the preferred rental housing for those in need, and now it no longer accepts tenants through the city’s general assistance program, resulting in a lack of institutions and places where the city can house people with nowhere to go.

At the City Council meeting on October 28, At-Large City Councillor Courtney Allen said during a lengthy and powerful discussion of the issue of homelessness: “This means to me The lowest-income people in our community are in a critical state."

"I think we need a working group to submit grant applications with community partners to create a large shelter with low barriers. I also agree with MP (Raegan) LaRochelle that we need to do something now. I have not done anything like this in Augusta, I understand it. But I think we have reached the tipping point, and people will die on the street this winter."

Nicole Mullens of the city’s Ministry of Health and Welfare said her office saw a mixture of homeless people and people seeking help. She said that losing the Edwards House as a resource was a huge blow. Other landlords also expressed their reluctance to accept general assistance clients, citing concerns about behavioral problems and drug abuse. She said that some clients have bridged the city with landlords or hotels.

Mullins said the city is in a crisis of chronic homelessness.

She said: "We need to solve this problem and find options to solve the problem at hand, lest it get worse, as it is now."

On Thursday, Robin Oviatt stood in the shelter of her campsite rented in Augusta, holding her foldable white cane. She slept in a tent, yes, there were pop-up canopies and tarps in the tent. Joe Phelan/Kennebeck Magazine

At-Large Member Raegan LaRochelle suggested finding a building that could be reused as an emergency temporary homeless shelter. She also suggested using part of the funds paid by the city through General Assistance to pay for the 10 nights of hotel rooms for the homeless, instead of building a shelter with bedding and pooling these resources together. They provide overall shelters. One month, not just 10 days.

However, cost is a factor.

Mayor David Rollins said that the city and its population of less than 19,000 cannot open and operate a homeless shelter on its own, and the state and federal governments have not provided enough help to make Augusta like this. A city of scale can do so, either.

Currently, Food for Life Ministries operates a homeless shelter in Augusta, but it is often full.

Officials working on housing issues include Michele Prince, chief operating officer of the Kennebec Valley Community Action Program. She is also the chair of the multi-agency working group on affordable housing that was established during the pandemic to find solutions to the problem of the lack of affordable housing in central Maine.

On Friday, Prince said that the lack of housing at any price is the biggest factor leading to the increase in the number of homeless people. The shortage of affordable housing for low-income earners is even worse, and she said this is a problem for the entire state, not just Augusta.

Robin Oviatt held up a note on the back of a business card in Augusta on Thursday. Joe Phelan/Kennebeck Magazine

She said that some low-income people who received housing vouchers could not find any place to rent, either because the rent was higher than the upper limit allowed through the voucher program, or because the landlord was unwilling to cooperate with these programs.

Prince said her agency was working with about 40 people before the Comfort Inn and Best Western hotels in Augusta decided to stop providing housing. Most of them either found permanent housing or worked with the case manager at the Homeless Shelter in Central Maine in Waterville and lived in temporary housing while looking for permanent housing.

For Oviatt, her current solution is her own temporary residence, a combination of a tent and pop-up canopy, all covered by a large blue tarp. The refuge was located on the parcel of her private property, adjacent to the city’s Gage Street Park.

She said she rented the space from the landlord because she could not find another apartment in the tight real estate market with rising rents. She said that the $800 monthly Social Security disability-related payments she received were not enough to pay for a one-bedroom apartment in the Augusta-Gardner area. She needs to stick to that area because she is blind. She has lived in that area for the past 20 years and she knows how to move around.

Although she lacks a stable housing and has to deal with a series of health problems, including visual impairment, rheumatoid arthritis, hypoglycemia, post-traumatic stress disorder, mental disability and poor gallbladder, Oviat said she Very lucky to have a tent and a place to set it up.

On Thursday, Robin Oviatt held up a plush toy given to her by her late husband while sitting in a tent at her rented campsite in Augusta. Joe Phelan/Kennebeck Magazine

"I was lucky. Before I found this place, I was hanging out on the street 24/7," she said on Thursday, just outside her neat tent fence, heated by only a two-burner Coleman camping stove .

"This is my way of life. It is difficult. It is difficult for me, but I know it is even harder for other homeless people. They may have no money and nowhere to go. There must be a way to help. These people. The homeless are the most vulnerable people. Stop politics and start caring about people."

Oviat said that the Catholic charity is trying to help her find an apartment, but so far she has not found an affordable apartment, and any open apartments are quickly occupied. She said it was difficult for her to find a new residence because the previous landlord claimed that she had conflicts with other tenants, which she denied and her previous housing voucher was taken away.

She is currently working on installing a simple drainage system, using PVC pipes she found discarded to prevent her tent area from becoming too dirty. She equips the tent with a portable toilet, carbon monoxide alarm and fire extinguisher that is cleaned every day. She also put a big teddy bear in the tent, which was a gift from her husband David, who died in 2106.

She said that in the summer, the city police informed her that she must leave the scene within 24 hours; if she did not, the city would delete all her belongings from the website. She said that when she stated that the property was not part of the city’s park but was a private property, the city made concessions.

What Oviat really wants is a one-bedroom apartment with heating and utilities in her price range. She agreed that there was not enough housing and criticized officials for not taking action to create more low-income housing.

"If this happens to me, I have some wisdom, some ability, what about those who don't have a say?" she said. "They are not just thrown under the bus, they are also put into the meat grinder."

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