Permanent public bathrooms may be Lewiston's next step in its effort to address homelessness

Feb. 16—LEWISTON — City officials say two portable restrooms placed at downtown locations are seeing heavy use, but are meant as only a temporary measure within the city's larger response to homelessness.

Officials said the restrooms, placed in Kennedy Park and the "PUG" park on Bartlett Street, will help the city evaluate the potential use of more permanent bathroom facilities as the city considers a range of options.

Offering public bathrooms, as well as other day shelter or warming shelter facilities, was included in a recent set of recommendations from Lewiston's Housing Committee.

Last week, city staff presented short- and long-term options to the City Council, including portable warming shelters, permanent bathrooms, and a potential partnership with a local faith organization for a mobile shower unit.

The Housing Committee, tasked with advising city officials on housing issues, told officials in October that homelessness was the city's most urgent issue due to the impending winter weather coupled with the pandemic. Shortly after, Lewiston nonprofit Community Concepts began operating a winter wellness shelter out of the Ramada Hotel on Pleasant Street.

During a workshop session last week, Deputy City Administrator Dale Doughty laid out options for councilors to consider, stating that so far, the portable toilets have been used a good amount, and have not been vandalized.

He told officials that included in this year's Capital Improvement Plan is funding for a more permanent public restroom at Kennedy Park. He shared one option, known as the "Portland Loo," designed by a company for the city of Portland, Oregon.

Councilor Alicia Rea said adding a permanent public restroom in the community "goes beyond our homeless community."

In response to other Housing Committee recommendations, Doughty shared a proposal to build three-sided warming shelters that would feature propane heaters. He listed a number of potential locations, from parcels on Howe, Shawmut and Walnut streets to the bus terminal parking lot across from Lewiston's Central Fire station.

He said the shelters, using a wooden "camp alcove" lean-to kit, would allow more visibility while offering some shelter from the elements. The portable bathrooms would be moved to coincide with the locations of the shelters. They would cost between $5,000 and $7,500 each, he said.

Several councilors and the mayor, however, pushed back against the idea, stating that the wooden shelters could be an "incredible liability" for fire or assaults.

Councilor Luke Jensen said on top of the liability, the shelters "seem like a half-measure."

Also shared was a potential partnership with Pathway Vineyard Church, which according to officials, is looking to partner with more than one municipality to purchase and operate a mobile shower and sanitation facility.

Doughty said the mobile facility, inside a trailer, would "roll up to locations in the city," also offering hygiene kits. He said an agreement could be made between the church and more than one municipality to split time and costs.

Staff also asked officials if the city should still be pursuing options for a permanent shelter, something that homeless advocates have pushed for years.

Mayor Mark Cayer told councilors that the city should partner with a local agency to develop such a shelter.

Councilor Lee Clement has said he is wary of a public overnight shelter, but said he would support a day shelter if the property community partners are identified. He also said he'd "like to think other communities would support it" given that it's a "regional concern."

Asked Monday, Housing Committee Chairman Craig Saddlemire said the committee has reviewed the city's recent proposals and is "generally supportive of the work the city is doing and the direction it's going in."

He said the committee is supportive of the mobile shower and permanent public bathroom proposals, but is interested in reviewing other options based on a public bathroom style that better fits a park space.

As for the long-sought permanent shelter, Saddlemire said the committee is "emphatic" that work continues.

"There are a lot of ways to implement it, and we need to have more local navigators that can help access resources that people need, the "full tool kit" to get people out of homelessness and into permanent housing."

He said a Housing Committee member will formally present to the council later this month.