State lawmakers are currently poised to consider a number of changes to the laws surrounding homelessness — an issue that has reached crisis levels in many of Maine’s municipalities — as they enter into their second regular session in the new year.
This past Friday, the Legislature released its list of bill requests that are slated for screening going into the second regular session, which is scheduled to begin January 3, 2024.
The preliminary list is comprised of each request’s working title and sponsor. No additional information is yet available concerning the specific contents of these potential bills.
Seven of these 60-plus working titles included on the list are directly related to the issue of homelessness. Several are geared toward improving access to services and shelters, while others are related to the regulation and permissibility of encampments.
Sen. Ben Chipman (D-Cumberland) proposed a bill with the working title of “An Act to Address Mental Health, Substance Use Disorder and Homelessness.”
Two of the seven bills appear to be aimed at providing additional monetary support for homeless shelter operations throughout the state: Rep. Anne-Marie Mastraccio’s (D-Sanford) bill titled “An Act to Support Shelters, for the Unhoused” and Rep. Colleen Madigan’s (D-Waterville) bill titled “An Act to Improve Funding for Homeless Shelters.”
Similarly, “An Act to Prohibit Certain Municipalities from Enforcing Moratoria on Emergency Shelters” was proposed by Rep. Grayson Lookner (D-Portland).
The other three working titles related to this issue of homelessness that were included in Friday’s list appear to be concerned with the presence and permissibility of homeless encampments in Maine’s municipalities.
A bill titled “An Act to Establish Sanctioned Areas for Emergency Encampments in Certain Municipalities” was proposed by Rep. Lookner.
Rep. Ambureen Rana (D-Bangor) proposed two similarly-titled bills concerning the clearing of encampments: “An Act to Prohibit Clearing of Unhoused Encampments Without Providing Proper Housing Options” and “An Act to Prohibit Clearing Encampments of Unhoused Individuals.”
Homelessness — as well as its byproducts — has been a cause for great concern among Mainers in many of the state’s major municipalities, especially Portland.
The encampment located in the Park and Ride on Marginal Way — which formed in May of this year — has been particularly concerning for residents and business owners in the area due to the open sale and use of drugs, increased health hazards, and the ever-present threat of crime and violence that has accompanied the development and expansion of the encampment.
This is not to say that city officials have ignored the crisis that is unfolding within its borders. In fact, Portland has been attempting to clear the city’s many encampments for months now, only to have their denizens quickly relocate to other areas.
Most notably, the Park and Ride encampment began to form shortly after the city moved to clear the encampment between Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods.
Other efforts have included directly offering roughly 100 of Portland’s homeless residents accommodations — an effort which came with a $65,000 price tag — only to have a mere 18 accept.
In another attempt to mitigate the homelessness crisis was the consideration of a proposal to add additional beds to the city’s largest homeless shelter — an idea that the City Council has since rejected.
Although some argued that the expansion was vital given that the cold winter months are fast approaching, others made the case that simply increasing the availability of shelter beds would do nothing to actually make a dent in the city’s homelessness crisis, as it does not get to the root of the problem.
City officials have received pushback from some over their decisions about how to handle the crisis before them.
Several left-leaning organizations — including the Communist Party for Socialism and Liberation (PSL), the Maine Democratic Socialists of America (MDSA), and the Maine People’s Alliance (MPA) — have heavily criticized the city’s decision to “sweep” the encampments.
Mid-September, these groups joined forces to hold a “Stop the Sweeps” protest outside of Portland’s city hall.
The demonstration came just a week after the city cleared the Fore River Parkway homeless encampment and just shy of a month before Portland’s announcement of plans to clear the Park and Ride encampment on November 1.
Portland is not the only city, however, to be facing a homelessness crisis.
In Sanford, a man was stabbed multiple times near one of the city’s known congregation points for homeless individuals by two men who proceeded to steal the victim’s bike.
Auburn police found fentanyl in a homeless man’s tent, alongside other narcotics paraphernalia, after having received a call that a man was displaying a firearm in the waistband of his pants.
The suspect — Gabriel Sanchez — was arrested alongside another individual who was on the scene — Crystal Murray.
Over the summer in Augusta, a custodian discovered two individuals living on the roof of the Lillian P. Hussey Elementary School after noticing an unauthorized ladder on the premises when he arrived to prepare for the new school year.
It is incidents like these that set the stage for lawmakers as they look toward the start of their second session.
As of now, it still remains to be seen exactly how the working titles published Friday will ultimately take shape before they are formally considered by legislators in early 2024.