“The reason for me sitting here this evening is because I believe Waterville is at a very pivotal moment in its history,” said Matt Boulerice on Oct. 19 in the Ayotte Auditorium on Thomas College’s campus.
Boulerice was seated on the stage beside Mike Morris. Both men are running for mayor, and they were participating in a debate for the same position in anticipation of Nov. 7, election day.
During the debate, moderator and Thomas College professor Dr. James Libby’s first questions were about the unhoused population of Waterville.
Libby first asked the candidates about the work done by the Waterville Police Department and the city to connect with the unhoused population and provide them with resources through efforts like creating the position of community outreach coordinator.
“Our community outreach partner has been out there every day, every week, meeting with these people,” Morris said in response.
Later, he continued, “The barriers and the walls that have been put up are starting to come down, and we’re having conversations—fantastic conversations—that are helping us… understand what their needs are. And that’s what’s most important.”
Following up on this first question, Libby asked, “We’re starting to talk about things like yurts, and we’re talking about gates, and we’re talking about an allocation, and it’s closing in on winter. Where are you on some of the proposals that we heard in Council last night [sic]?”
Libby was referencing a Waterville City Council meeting that took place on Oct. 17.
At the meeting, Todd Stevens, the Waterville Police Department community outreach coordinator, spoke about the idea of spending up to $10,000 on yurts for the unhoused population at Waterville’s Head of Falls to ensure their safety during the winter. He estimated that about forty unhoused individuals currently live there. He also discussed putting up a fence at the north end of the Head of Falls encampment to create both a visual barrier and a safety barrier for the unhoused population there.
On this topic, Stevens said, “Providing that barrier between [the unhoused population] and the people that don’t want to see them or the people who are causing them issues down there… it’s huge.”
Jay Coelho, the current mayor of Waterville, also addressed the question of yurts at the meeting.
“We can keep [the unhoused population] in a central location where we can get them the services that they need,” Coelho said about the proposal. “We can mitigate and try to keep them warm during the winter so that we continue to build on the momentum that Todd has already created.”
Both Coelho and Stevens emphasized that the yurts will keep the town from having to move the unhoused population to different locations, which they say will help the city maintain better connections with them.
However, not all of Waterville is in favor of this plan. On Oct. 21, the Mid-Maine Homeless Shelter posted a multi-paragraph written response on their Facebook page to the Oct. 17 City Council meeting’s yurt proposal.
“It is the kind of strategy that sounds good in theory but falls apart in practice,” the shelter wrote of the plan.
The same post highlighted the actions taken by the Mid-Maine Homeless Shelter to ensure the safety of Waterville’s unhoused population during the winter months. For example, the post describes the Winter Warming Center, which adds a further twenty beds to the shelter’s year-round fifty beds, beginning on Nov. 1.
The Facebook post says this of the Mid-Maine Homeless Shelter’s plan to support the unhoused through the winter: “This plan not only aligns with Department of Housing and Urban Development best practices, it will safely and competently address the needs of the 40 to 50 individuals currently outside.”
Writing about their track record, the shelter said, “Importantly, thanks to the extraordinary work of our team, for the last two winters, no one who wanted shelter was denied shelter making Waterville the only service center city where no one was left outside.”
The Facebook post also claims that nobody involved with the $10,000 yurt proposal consulted the shelter about it before bringing it to the meeting.
Further opposition to the plan forwarded during the Oct. 17 City Council meeting comes as a result of the yurts’ planned location: near Head of Falls, not far from Two Cent Bridge and the Downtown Waterville Farmers’ Market.
In the Oct. 19 mayoral debate, Boulerice drew attention to this perspective.
“One of the biggest things I get from residents is, ‘Is Head of Falls the proper area for this?’” he said. “A lot of citizens are concerned because this was a park that they used to love going to, and now they feel that they’re not able to.”
During the City Council meeting, it was determined that the councilors would have a special meeting to further consider the plan to put up yurts for the unhoused population of Waterville near Head of Falls. Dr. Katie Spencer White, the Mid-Maine Homeless Shelter’s CEO, was recommended to be a part of that meeting.
Many of those involved hope that the special meeting will provide answers to the question of how best to support Waterville’s unhoused population through the winter.
~ Elias Kemp `27