Volunteer and Bangor resident Shannon Denbow checks on a woman living in a tent along the Penobscot River Tuesday morning. Credit: Callie Ferguson

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The Hope House shelter in Bangor moved 20 people into the Columbia Street Baptist Church on Tuesday night to adhere to social distancing guidelines, after plans fell through last week to house people who are homeless in a university gymnasium.

The move allows the 54-bed shelter to put more distance between sleeping cots to lower the risk of exposure to the coronavirus. The plan grew out of a wider debate over how Bangor should prevent an outbreak among its homeless population in which city officials have resisted increasing the total number of beds.

[Our COVID-19 tracker contains the most recent information on Maine cases by county]

The shelter had previously reconfigured mattresses at its Corporate Drive location to keep people as far apart as possible. Now, at the new offsite church location, staff have separated clients into two, 10-person groups, said Lori Dwyer, president of Penobscot Community Health Care, which oversees the Hope House.

“That’s progress and good news,” Dwyer said.

But it also means the wider Bangor community will need to find a new location for people who are homeless who test positive for the virus.

Previously, officials had designated the Columbia Street church as the quarantine location for up to 20 members of the city’s homeless population if they fell ill. Now there is no backup shelter if people get sick.

“There are active efforts to identify a shelter for those who test positive,” said Dan Cashman, a spokesman for the shelter. “Nothing is set yet, but considerations are happening.”

The developments come amid a larger discussion in which officials have disagreed over how Bangor should safeguard the homeless as COVID-19 spreads across Maine. People who are homeless are more vulnerable to the disease because they are less able to isolate themselves, have less access to the information and proper hygiene to keep them safe, and are more likely to have underlying health conditions that could exacerbate their illness.

Planning discussions between the city, local homeless shelters and Penquis CAP, the local social service agency helping in the effort, began in late March.

Originally, the Hope House wanted to increase the total number of shelter beds in Bangor to get more people off the streets and in anticipation of more people losing their homes as a result of the economic fallout, Dwyer said.

That plan would have taken full advantage of an offer from the University of Maine System, the Maine Department of Health and Human Services, and the Maine State Housing Authority, which reached out in late March to say they would help pay for up to 50 new beds in the city.

“I don’t have a crystal ball, nor does the city, but what the [U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] is telling us is to plan for a surge,” Dwyer said.

The federal health agency has urged shelters to prepare for higher demand during the pandemic and to work with their community to identify “places to refer clients” if they run out of beds.

But Bangor’s public health department resisted the idea of increasing the number of people sleeping in a shelter, citing competing guidance from public health officials to avoid gatherings of more than 10 people. They want to avoid outbreaks such as those unfolding in long-term care facilities in Belfast, Scarborough and Augusta, they said.

“This population we know is at risk, so putting them together seems like a risky proposition for their health,” said Patty Hamilton, the city’s public health director.

“As much as we can avoid that as possible, I think that would be ideal,” she said.

She would prefer the city help people without homes find permanent housing, she said. That was an ongoing challenge prior to the pandemic, but since the virus hit Maine, the city has found homes for 15 people, said City Manager Cathy Conlow. There are still people living outside, but many have been difficult to reach.

Hamilton is also keeping an eye on help that may come from the state, such as a plan to purchase hotel rooms for people who need shelter. The Maine State Housing Authority issued a request for proposals to hotels last week and has seen some interest in Bangor, according to a spokeswoman, who could not provide further details.

As for people at risk of losing their homes, Bangor and its neighboring towns should be helping people stay in their housing, using programs such as general assistance, Conlow said. On Thursday, Gov. Janet Mills announced a plan that would help some landlords and renters avoid evictions.

Dwyer, with PCHC, said her organization has respected the city’s position, even if it disagrees that the city doesn’t need additional shelter beds. It’s better to have people indoors, where at least staff can provide people with services, Dwyer said.

Wanting to be in lockstep with local health officials, PCHC narrowed its search for an offsite space that wouldn’t add extra shelter capacity.

The city has also requested that, for now, the Hope House reserve its beds for current clients of the shelter, meaning it’s only housing those who have visited in the past 90 days. That’s because the city is afraid of being overwhelmed by more people seeking homeless services when “we’re already overwhelmed,” Hamilton said.

At first, it seemed as though the Hope House would place some of its residents in the gymnasium at the University of Maine at Augusta’s Bangor campus. But on Friday, the city’s fire department rejected the idea because it didn’t have a sprinkler system.

The search continued. On Tuesday, it settled on the Columbia Street Baptist Church, which the fire department had previously approved as a shelter for those who test positive for the virus.

Just like at the Corporate Drive shelter, staff are screening residents by taking their temperature, handing out face masks and encouraging people to keep their distance once inside the space.

Penquis and the Bangor Area Homeless Shelter, which reduced its capacity to comply with social distancing guidelines without having to turn existing clients away, are expected to help with staffing.

In the meantime, the community will keep looking for another place to house people in the event someone without a home catches the virus.

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Callie Ferguson is an investigative reporter for the Bangor Daily News. She writes about criminal justice, police and housing.