Today, the Legislative Council considered appeal requests from a handful of Democrat lawmakers who had proposed bills concerning the homelessness crisis impacting municipalities throughout the state.
Upon second consideration, three of the five appealed bills were approved by the Council — all along party lines.
One of the lawmakers who appealed the Council’s initial decision was Sen. Ben Chipman (D-Cumberland). One of the bills he appealed at yesterday’s hearing was titled “An Act to Address Mental Health, Substance Use Disorder and Homelessness.”
According to Sen. Chipman, his proposal would implement “a much needed holistic approach to integrate supportive services, medication, housing, and legal assistance in a way that has never been done before in our state.”
“Experts I’ve spoken with across the state tell me that the overwhelming majority of those who are currently homeless struggle with mental health and/or substance use disorder,” Chipman said at the hearing. “Despite all of our work on these issues, homelessness has continued to skyrocket over the last two years.”
Chipman also noted that the bill would allow family members to petition a judge to get someone experiencing homelessness or suffering from mental health and addiction to get “the help they need when they can’t make those decisions for themselves.”
The Legislative Council voted down Chipman’s appeal 8-2, with only Sen. Troy Jackson (D-Aroostook) and Rep. Rachel Talbot Ross (D-Portland) supporting his bill.
Rep. Grayson D. Lookner (D-Portland) filed an appeal for his bill titled “An Act to Prohibit Certain Municipalities from Enforcing Moratoria on Emergency Shelters.”
“The situation around homelessness and people camping in public places in Bangor, Waterville, and my city of Portland is dire and untenable,” Rep. Lookner said at the hearing. “I believe it represents an emergency.”
“Homelessness is a statewide problem, and in order for us to solve it, it is vital that neighbors help neighbors,” he said. “That fundamental Maine value is what drove me to introduce this bill.”
“Most regional service hubs recognize that it is necessary for them to provide some help in the form of emergency shelters for their neighbors experiencing homelessness,” Lookner said. “Sadly, some do not.”
Lookner explained that his bill prohibiting moratoria on emergency shelter construction would only apply to the three municipalities in Maine with populations over 30,000.
The Council voted along party lines in favor of Lookner’s proposal, ushering it forward in the legislative process.
Rep. Colleen Madigan (D-Waterville) filed an appeal with the Legislative Council for her bill titled “An Act to Improve Funding for Homeless Shelters.”
“I think we can all agree that homelessness is an emergency right now,” Rep. Madigan said. “This is a targeted bill that addresses a very important part of this crisis — low barrier shelters.”
Low-barrier shelters are facilities that service anyone in need of shelter regardless of whether or not they are actively using substances such as drugs or alcohol — something that is prohibited by the vast majority of shelters statewide.
“This requires more staff and more training, so it costs more to operate, yet they receive the same overnight rate as regular overnight shelters,” she said.
Madigan explained that her bill would seek to accomplish two things — to provide a one-time funding boost to low-barrier shelters, and to launch a pilot project aimed at securing additional federal funding for these operations in the future.
The Legislative Council voted along party lines to support Madigan’s proposal, allowing it to go before the full legislature next year for debate and consideration.
Rep. Anne-Marie Mastraccio (D-Sanford) appealed the Council’s initial rejection of her bill titled “An Act to Support Shelters for the Unhoused.”
At yesterday’s hearing, Rep. Mastraccio explained that the goal of this bill is to increase the shelter operating subsidy included in the general fund budget.
Mastraccio went on to say that all homeless shelters in Maine are operating with deficits while simultaneously facing an ever-growing homelessness crisis.
To illustrate the nature of the crisis at hand, she described in great detail how the homeless population has grown in her district in recent years.
She stated that she has never before submitted a bill for the short session, but that she believed the situation addressed by her bill constitutes an emergency.
The Council voted along party lines to allow her bill to go before the full legislature when lawmakers reconvene early next year.
Rep. Ambureen Rana (D-Bangor) appealed the Council’s rejection of her bill titled “An Act to Prohibit Clearing Encampments of Unhoused Individuals.”
“More and more of our unhoused neighbors are forced to live outside in encampments due to lack of shelter and affordable housing,” Rep. Rana said at yesterday’s hearing. “This persistent issue is soaring across our state.”
Rana argued in her presentation before the Council that municipalities have adopted policies that “sweep and criminalize homelessness in an effort to hide this issue,” suggesting that clearing encampments “only make the situation worse.”
“State legislation is needed to discourage cities and towns from wasting limited public resources on sweeps and the criminalization that make our state’s homelessness crisis worse than it already is,” she said.
Although Rana did not offer any specifics of what her legislation would actually do, she explained that the details would be “formed and sculpted” in collaboration with stakeholders should it receive the Council’s approval.
Before members of the Legislative Council voted on Rana’s appeal, both Sen. Troy Jackson (D-Aroostook) and Rep. Rachel Talbot Ross (D-Portland) commented that — while they supported Rana’s efforts to address the homelessness crisis — her proposal posed some serious issues with relation to the state’s traditional of local control over such issues.
The Council ultimately voted unanimously in opposition to Rana’s proposal.
The three bills that did receive that Council’s approval yesterday still have a long road to travel before they have the possibility of becoming a part of state law.
When the full legislature reconvenes on January 3, 2024, lawmakers will begin to make their way through not only the new bills approved by the Council, but also through the legislation that was carried over from the previous session.
It still remains to be seen how legislators and committee members will opt to handle these bills when they take them up next session.
Sen. Ben Chipman (D-Cumberland), Rep. Grayson Lookner (D-Portland), Rep. Colleen Madigan (D-Waterville), Rep. Anne-Marie Mastraccio (D-Sanford), and Rep. Ambureen Rana (D-Bangor) did not immediately respond to a request for comment from the Maine Wire.