Although homelessness featured prominently among the list of legislative requests made by lawmakers in advance of next session, none of the proposed bills will make it before legislators in early 2024.
Last week, the Maine State Legislative Council voted to either approve or reject the 280-plus working titles submitted by legislators for consideration going into next year.
Of these bills, the Council approved just 58, voting down the other 225.
Among those 225 rejected working titles are a handful of solutions proposed by Democrat lawmakers aimed at addressing various aspects of the homelessness crisis plaguing metropolitan areas across Maine.
The Legislative Council is the State Legislature’s administrative body, comprised of ten elected members of legislative leadership, including the President of the Senate, the Speaker of the House, the Republican and Democratic Floor Leaders for both the Senate and House of Representatives and their Assistant Floor Leaders.
Part of the numerous responsibilities delegated to the Council are screening and approving requests to introduce legislation after cloture in any legislative session, as well as for the second regular session and any special sessions.
Several Democrat lawmakers in Augusta proposed a selection of bills geared toward addressing different aspects of the state’s homelessness crisis, although the majority of them spoke little to any of the issues potentially causing the recent uptick in homelessness across Maine’s largest cities.
Rather, most of the solutions put forward in the failed proposals were fundamentally directed at temporary fixes that would address, at least to some extent, the symptoms of the homelessness crisis — such as by expanding shelter space and funding or allowing homeless encampments to develop on public property.
Just one of the proposed bills appears to have been focused on chipping away at some of the problems that can lead to homelessness, including mental health and drug abuse.
Rep. Grayson Lookner (D-Portland) proposed two of the seven rejected working titles related to the topic of homelessness — “An Act to Prohibit Certain Municipalities from Enforcing Moratoria on Emergency Shelters” and “An Act to Establish Sanctioned Areas for Emergency Encampments in Certain Municipalities.”
Rep. Lookner told the Maine Wire that he intends to appeal the Council’s decision to block the first of these two bills.
“Neighbors helping neighbors is a core Maine value, and since homelessness is a statewide problem, everyone must do their fair share to care for their neighbors who fall into homelessness,” Lookner said.
“When certain large municipalities enact moratoria on emergency shelters, it unfairly burdens the rest of the state,” he said. “I am confident that the Legislative Council will see the wisdom of this bill during this time of crisis, and allow it to be introduced for the short session through the appeals process.”
Rep. Ambureen Rana (D-Bangor) proposed two 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.”
Two other bills appeared 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.”
Sen. Ben Chipman (D-Cumberland) proposed a bill with the working title of “An Act to Address Mental Health, Substance Use Disorder and Homelessness.”
Homelessness has been top-of-mind for many Mainers in recent months as the number of homeless individuals in the state’s largest cities has skyrocketed and extensive encampments have emerged in a number of urban public spaces.
Although many cities throughout the state have struggled to address this crisis, the situation in Portland has garnered the most attention due in part to the large number of encampments spread throughout the city.
The most prominent of these — located in the Park and Ride on Marginal Way — was the latest camp cleared by the city’s Encampment Crisis Response Team (ECRT) following several months of controversy.
Residents and business owners in the area had complained to city officials at length about the threatening and unsanitary conditions created by the presence of the encampment.
After the Maine Department of Transportation (Maine DOT) effectively sanctioned the presence of the encampment over the summer by closing down half of the spots in the Marginal Way Park and Ride, locals reported concerns over the open sale and use of drugs, increased health hazards, and the ever-present threat of crime and violence that has accompanied its development and expansion.
Although clearing that encampment certainly will have had a positive impact for those in the area that were struggling with these issues, the ECRT’s sweep has had little to no meaningful impact on lessening the number of individuals in the city who are homeless.
As part of the ECRT’s closure of the Park and Ride encampment, the tents and other belongings of homeless individuals were loaded into U-Haul vehicles, some provided by area nonprofits, and transported to another encampment located under the Casco Bay Bridge — which has now become the largest encampment in the city.
According to city data, there are currently a total of 212 tents throughout Portland — almost three times the 75 tents reported in February of this year.
The clearing of the Park and Ride marked the third effort made by Portland’s ECRT to eliminate homeless encampments throughout the city — the first being the Bayside Trail encampment this past Spring, and the second being the Fore River Parkway encampment in early September.
Additionally, the Maine DOT closed another encampment located near Deering Oaks Park late last August.
Although the state legislature will not be considering any proposals to enact blanket policies authorizing these kinds of encampments statewide, the Portland city councilors have put forth a proposition to implement a similar allowance in the municipality.
Submitted by City Councilors Anna Trevorrow and Roberto Rodriguez, the proposed order would create a “temporary exception to the City’s prohibition on camping and loitering on City property and would allow unhoused people to camp on certain public property from the effective date of the amendments to April 30, 2024.”
The amendment would, however, maintain a prohibition on camping in certain specified locations, including downtown streets and sidewalks, playgrounds, City Hall Plaza, Monument Square, and within 250 feet of schools.
Similar to the rejection received by these kinds of propositions at the state level, the ordinance amendment in Portland was met with widespread resistance.
In memos submitted to the City Council prior to the first reading of the proposed amendment, the Portland Police Department, the Departments of Health and Human Services (DHHS), Parks, Recreation and Facilities, and Housing and Economic Development all identified their concerns with the anticipated impacts of the order on public health and safety.
At this time, it still remains to be seen whether or not the Council will move forward with this proposed change to city ordinances.
The Council is scheduled for a first reading of the proposition tonight at 5pm in the City Council Chambers, located at 389 Congress Street on the second floor of City Hall.
Although lawmakers in Augusta will not be considering any of the above proposals, one bill and one constitutional amendment related to homelessness were carried over from last session for consideration in the new year.
LD 1721 — “An Act to Create Transitional Housing Communities for Homeless Populations in the State” — was sponsored by Sen. Jill Duson (D-Cumberland) and aims to fund the creation of transitional housing communities for homeless individuals.
The bill would establish the Transitional Housing Community Construction Program Fund — under the care of the Maine State Housing Authority — to finance the development of transitional housing facilities for homeless individuals and families as they “transition to permanent housing.”
According to testimony provided by Rep. Duson to the Joint Select Committee on Housing, LD 1721 aims to create 400 transitional housing units for families and 500 of these units for individuals, “with at least one transitional housing community for each population within each of the nine homeless response service hubs already established by MaineHousing.”
LD 853 — “RESOLUTION, Proposing an Amendment to the Constitution of Maine to Establish a Right to Housing” — was sponsored by Rep. Benjamin Collings (D-Portland) and is aimed at initiating the process to put a “right to housing” amendment before Maine voters.
If passed by the requisite two-thirds of each chamber, voters would be asked to answer either “yes” or “no” to the following question on next November’s ballot: “Do you favor amending the Constitution of Maine to declare that all individuals have a natural, inherent and unalienable right to housing?”
Unlike for LD 1721, no public hearings or work sessions have been held yet for LD 853.
Lawmakers will ultimately handle these items when they reconvene early next year.
The second legislative session is scheduled to start on January 3, 2024.
Senator Ben Chipman (D-Cumberland) and Representatives Colleen Madigan (D-Waterville), Anne-Marie Mastraccio (D-Sanford), and Ambureen Rana (D-Bangor) did not respond to a request for comment from the Maine Wire.
Note — This article has been updated to reflect the most recent numbers from the City of Portland concerning the reported number of tents located throughout the city. Language regarding the Portland City Council has been updated for clarity. Rep. Grayson Lookner (D-Portland) was reached for comment after the publication of this article, and his statement has now been added.