Joseph, who goes by the nickname "Batman", packs up his belongings to leave the Bangor Waterfront after a visit from police, homeless outreach workers and city officials on Thursday morning. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

Bangor has now cleared out the dozen or so tents that had sprung up on the Penobscot River waterfront in recent months, erasing one of the most visible signs that a significant number of homeless people — more than 100 — have been sleeping in the city’s woods, parks and streets during the coronavirus pandemic.

On Thursday morning, a team of police, local officials, outreach workers and a public health nurse walked around the partly deserted encampment, instructing the remaining inhabitants to pack out within 24 hours and offering to connect them with various resources.

One 23-year-old man named Joseph, who declined to give his last name and prefers the nickname “Batman,” said he would reach out to a homeless shelter, but is planning to spend the winter at a site along the Kenduskeag Stream. Another said he’s from Bucksport, but wasn’t able to get back there because his car had been impounded.

Bangor’s unsheltered population has grown this year as the coronavirus pandemic has stretched on for more than six months, making homelessness more apparent in prominent spots in the city’s downtown, such as the waterfront and Pickering Square. The growth comes as the pandemic has limited space at homeless shelters, made it difficult for people in need of a place to sleep to couch-surf, and further limited the supply of affordable apartments, as a lack of turnover in tenants has translated into fewer units becoming available.

The city was able to clear out the waterfront in a matter of days, but it’s at a loss for a quick and easy solution to the vast array of challenges that have left so many struggling people homeless in the Queen City this year.

“We’re trying to do everything we can to make sure people are safe for the winter, but I don’t think we’re going to have a magic bullet between now and the first snow,” said Bangor City Council Chair Clare Davitt.

Clockwise from left: Bangor police along with homeless outreach workers and city officials visit the homeless encampment that has been growing along the Bangor Waterfront to offer resources and to inform them they needed to vacate the area by Friday; Bangor residents Polly DeCesere, Bennie Gray and Elaine Gray (left to right) talk about their unhappiness with what has happened to the Bangor Waterfront; This week the city banned camping at the waterfront as part of a larger effort to address an increase in the city’s unsheltered homeless population; Tents, trash and needles have become a growing problem in the waterfront area; Sgt. Wade Betters gives a food coupon to a man who was staying in one of the tents along the waterfront. Credit: Linda Coan O’Kresik / BDN

For now, the city is trying to steer as many people as possible into homeless shelters or affordable apartments, or arrange transportation for them to safe destinations outside Maine. It’s also hoping some local organizations will open up temporary centers this winter where the homeless can seek shelter from the elements, but still be spaced out enough to avoid spreading the coronavirus. Plus, Bangor officials have started to reach out to their counterparts in Penobscot County government and neighboring municipalities, hoping to craft a more regional approach to a challenge that often hits most directly in Bangor as the regional service center.

While Bangor’s unsheltered population has grown this year, the size of the increase is not exactly clear. The city was able to count about 140 unsheltered homeless people — those who sleep outside rather than in a shelter — living in Bangor a few weeks ago, according to Community Services Manager Rindy Fogler.

The city counted just 25 to 30 unsheltered homeless people around the same time a year ago, while another group, the Maine Statewide Homeless Council, identified 129 in Greater Bangor as part of a survey in the summer of 2019.

However large the uptick, local officials and business owners have expressed growing alarm about the unhoused population living in the Queen City and a determination to do something about it.

During a meeting of the Downtown Bangor Partnership on Tuesday, a downtown store owner said she regularly walks past piles of vomit and debris in the morning. Police have received complaints about open drug use, discarded needles and other nuisance behavior. On Wednesday morning, one man on the waterfront allegedly used a sharp object to cut another in the head.

One of the biggest drivers of unsheltered homelessness has been a lack of affordable housing, according to several people interviewed for this story, including Josh D’Alessio, director of the Hope House Health and Living Center, a Bangor homeless shelter run by Penobscot Community Health Care.

While that was already a problem in Bangor — and many other U.S. cities — before the pandemic, there has been even less turnover in apartments this year, in part because of a national moratorium on evictions. “The lack of evictions means a lack of turnover, and people experiencing homelessness are vying for a limited number of units,” D’Alessio said.

While the Hope House normally helps steer about 150 to 165 of its clients into permanent housing every year, D’Alessio said that it has not “come close” to that success rate this year. As a result, he said, fewer beds are opening up and more people are being turned away.

Bangor officials have also said there is another contributor to the uptick in the city’s unsheltered homeless population this year. While it has long been a service center for people from across eastern Maine, they said that the opening of a state-funded homeless shelter in the Ramada Inn on Odlin Road may have drawn additional people here.

Although the temporary shelter is being administered by the Hope House, the city’s public health department logged 67 calls from people specifically asking to stay there between May 1 and now, according to Fogler. She said that most of those calls came last spring, soon after the inn was repurposed.

“Some of these people were already here. Some of them were out of town and hoping to come here,” Fogler said. “It was a very well-intentioned policy on the state level to create this. It just had some downstream effects.”

The scene at the Bangor waterfront has changed as the homeless population has been setting up tents in the area. Tents, clothes, shopping carts and needles can be seen along the walking area on Thursday. Credit: Linda Coan O’Kresik / BDN

Many of those living unsheltered face lofty barriers to escaping poverty such as drug addiction and mental health challenges.

Joseph, the 23-year-old who had been camping on the Bangor waterfront, said he has lived in Bangor since March of last year. He moved here from Washington state, he said, because his parents hoped a change of scenery would help him recover from his crystal meth addiction. But he is using meth again, and now heroin, too.

While some people have let him stay on their couches, he has mostly been unsheltered since coming to Maine. Before police told him he’d need to move away from the waterfront on Thursday, his campsite included a small green tent, a fuzzy blanket featuring an image of the Virgin Mary and a car battery that he had rigged up to charge his phone. At a nearby tent, someone had carved the image of a bumblebee into a pumpkin.

Now, Joseph said he’s building a fort out of wooden pallets near Kenduskeag Stream. “I was going to hibernate in a treehouse,” he said of his plans for the winter.

As for crafting a regional approach to combating homelessness, the city has not made any specific requests to other communities at this point, according to Davitt. For now, her hope is just to begin raising awareness about the city’s concerns. She suggested that the region could eventually put together an inventory of available affordable housing, so that people might be able to look for it beyond Bangor.

“When we are so short on actual housing to begin with, we’re not going to be able to magically create that,” Davitt said.

Correction: An earlier version of this report misstated Josh D’Alessio’s title.

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