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Homeless Crisis Is Main Topic of Discussion at Council Meeting

Lafayette School

by Zendelle Bouchard

At the City Council’s regular meeting on July 18, 2023, the crises of homelessness and substance abuse that are impacting our community dominated the discussion in several agenda items.

City Manager’s Report

Asylum Seekers: City Manager Steve Buck updated the Council on the status of the families seeking asylum. There are a total of 35 families, 27 of which have been matched to permanent housing, although not all have been able to move in yet. The temporary shelter at the St. Ignatius Gym, which opened June 15, will close on Thursday, July 20. The 8 families still awaiting housing will be moved to temporary quarters paid for by York County Community Action Corp., and YCCAC’s housing navigators will continue to place them in apartments as they become available. If no housing is found, they will be housed in private homes. Mr. Buck heaped praise on YCCAC for their work with the families. He said this resolution is a significantly better outcome than he anticipated a week ago.

Resident Homeless: Mr. Buck said the other side of the homeless crisis is our resident homeless population, which consists mostly of people who were raised in Sanford. This number is large and growing, he said. Until recently, the majority of these individuals had substance abuse disorder and/or mental health issues that prevented them from seeking shelter. The closure of the Peer Center on Washington St., due to the property owner not renewing its lease, has had a severe impact. Many people who spent days at the Peer Support Center are now drifting through town or congregating in Central Park.

The overall homeless population has approximately doubled in the past year, due to an increasing number of people who are homeless solely for economic reasons. These include senior citizens and others who have steady income, but cannot find affordable apartments. They often do not qualify for general assistance or other public assistance.

The Sanford Police Department’s Mental Health Unit, which works to assist individuals who are unhoused or affected by substance use disorder, has had contact with 136 individuals so far this year, of whom 104 are documented to be homeless, and has identified 116 campsites scattered across the City. Mr. Buck said the four MHU staffers try to keep tabs on all the unhoused people in Sanford, but are having increasing difficulty managing this widely dispersed and growing population.

Mr. Buck said now that the asylum-seeking families are being settled, the City will be refocusing its efforts to assist the resident homeless population. There are fewer state resources available to help the resident homeless, and he urged Sanford residents to contact their elected officials to address this disparity.

Taking Action on Homelessness: A biweekly coordination meeting between City officials, the MHU and YCCAC has been established to springboard from the lessons that have been learned over the past few months. Specific action items for the short term include:

  • Reestablishing the Peer Support Center in a new location
  • Setting up a bricks-and-mortar location for Maine Access Points, the mobile state-licensed program that distributes free syringes to drug users. Since they switched from a needle-exchange model, Mr. Buck said large numbers of needles are being discarded in public, which is a serious hazard to residents, as well as time consuming for City employees who sweep through the parks each morning picking them up.
  • Creation of temporary portable housing solutions, such as the Pallet homes that can be quickly erected. He is networking with other communities that have set up temporary housing to learn what works.
  • Standing up a new resource hub and warming shelter. York County Shelter Programs has been awarded $700,000 for this project and is entering into a contract with the Sanford School District to use the vacant Lafayette School building.
  • Pressing state officials to provide equity in distribution of resources for combatting homelessness. There are only 39 shelter beds in all of York County, compared to hundreds in Cumberland County.
  • Preparing to be one of the first municipalities to apply for the state’s new Housing First program, which will be available in October. This strategy for helping the homeless focuses on getting people into housing first, before dealing with their substance use or mental health issues. Under this program, Sanford would qualify for funding for up to 44 privately-developed transitional housing units, which would be staffed 24/7 with support services to prepare the residents to move into permanent housing.

On other fronts, Mr. Buck said the City is also seeking to pursue state and federal resources to increase the number of mental health inpatient beds and outpatient services in Sanford. There are currently 45 mental health beds and they are full, he said. More evidence-based counseling and prescription-based substance abuse treatment is also needed. The City continues to work on the ordinance amendment to increase housing density allowances in the development districts of the City.

SPD’s Hands Tied: Mr. Buck summed up his report on the crisis of homelessness in Sanford by noting what he called “the deterioration of enforceability” for crimes committed by unhoused individuals. Gradual changes to state policy, as declared by the Maine Attorney General’s office, now prevent our police officers from arresting or summonsing anyone who identifies as homeless for certain offenses including drug possession and use, loitering, littering, criminal trespass and illegal entry.

Mr. Buck noted that two City Councilors will be attending the biweekly meetings with the MHU and YCCAC, and he will provide regular updates at each Council meeting.

Central Park Benches: Under New Business, the Council took up the question of purchasing and installing center arm rests on the benches at Central Park. Mr. Buck had advocated for the arm rests to prevent homeless people congregating in the park from sleeping on the benches. Councilor Pete Tranchemontagne said he talked with Deputy Police Chief Eric Small, who told him this would help the SPD. Deputy Mayor Maura Herlihy said she was on the fence about the issue, but after doing some research decided the arm rests would do nothing to solve the problem of homelessness, and were “just a slap in the face to people who are struggling.” After further discussion, the motion failed as the vote was tied at 3-3, with Councilors Tranchemontagne, Nate Hitchcock and Bob Stackpole voting in favor, and DM Herlihy and Councilors Ayn Hanselmann and Jonathan Martell voting against. The issue will be taken up again at a future meeting when Mayor Brink is present.

Public Participation

During the Public Participation segment of the meeting, several members of the public commented on the impacts of homelessness and associated substance abuse.

Jason Royce of the Three Rangers Foundation, who advocates for disabled veterans and the elderly, said he fields a lot of calls from soldiers who return home to find there is no place for them to live, even if they have jobs and money. He said rents for the one-bedroom apartments at 13-17 Washington St. have increased to $1,600 a month, even though the elevator has been out of order for nearly two years. As a result of what he termed “corporate greed,” many local retirees are unable to afford housing. The building is owned by Besso, LLC of Brookline, MA, and managed by Universal Property Management of Portsmouth, NH. “Please take care of the people who built this city,” he concluded.

Lisa DeHaven, Emily Rand and Dan Rand spoke about problems due to Maine Access Points setting up its needle distribution program in the parking lot near Rand and Company, which is located in the Sanford Mill on Washington St. Ms. DeHaven said they are losing business and employees are afraid due to the constant presence of substance abusers injecting drugs, fighting, yelling and scattering needles in the parking lot and even inside the building. Piles of trash are accumulating and attracting rats. Ms. Rand said she regrets signing the lease for the space. She calls dispatch every day but nothing is done and she feels like the City is not supporting her. Mr. Rand said the City needs to make solving this problem a priority.

Dianne Connolly of Springvale, who has had repeated issues with people trespassing on her property, asked that the Attorney General’s policy that prevents Sanford Police from charging trespassers if they are homeless be posted on the City’s website so citizens know what to expect.

Will Hurley, the Director of Harm Reduction for Maine Access Points said the Narcan provided by his organization has reversed over 500 overdoses in the past year and over 4,000 syringes have been collected in the past six months. He said they will be doing a cleanup at the corner of Heritage and Weaver Dr. on July 29, and invited members of the community to help.

Jen Davie asked for more information for residents from the City about how people can help homeless residents by working with and donating through the organizations that are set up to help them.

Future Agenda Items

  • Councilor Jonathan Martell asked that the Public Safety Subcommittee discuss panhandlers creating safety hazards in the roadways.
  • Councilor Hitchcock asked if organizations that work with the homeless could come and give a short presentation at a future Council meeting.
  • Councilor Tranchemontagne asked for more information on the Housing First program. Deputy Mayor Herlihy responded that the Council’s annual workshop on housing is due to be held in September.

See the rest of the City Council meeting report here:

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