In this October 2020 file phtoo, Bangor police along with homeless outreach workers and city officials visit the homeless encampment that had been growing along the Bangor Waterfront to offer resources and to inform them they needed to vacate the area. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

The Bangor City Council on Monday unanimously backed a proposal to place public restrooms throughout the city so homeless residents have a place to use the bathroom.

Under the approved proposal, the city would place up to four portable outdoor toilets at yet-to-be-determined locations, and the city would partner with members of a local advocacy group to maintain them. While the toilets are primarily meant for the homeless population, any member of the general public could use them.

The bathrooms will cost the city about $70,000 a year, or $5,860 a month. Casella Waste Systems would service the toilets up to five times a week, pumping and refilling each tank, repairing damaged items and restocking toiletries.

Members of the Peace and Justice Center of Eastern Maine and the Greater Bangor Housing Coalition have advocated for the new bathrooms in recent months. The coalition sent the council a proposal for the facilities last month.

Being able to use the bathroom without worry is a right that the city needs to ensure for all, especially as the COVID-19 pandemic has made access to public restrooms more limited than ever, Sam Bullard, co-program director of the Peace and Justice Center, told the council. The alternative is a homeless population that risks arrest as they relieve themselves outside.

The vote on Monday was an early step toward installing the bathrooms, especially as city officials expect the homeless population to grow as the weather warms.

Though some proponents of the plan suggested locations for the bathrooms, including Pickering Square and the Bangor waterfront, the resolution the council approved does not list any specific locations. Council Chair Dan Tremble said the city could decide on those later.

Under Bangor’s plan, a volunteer coordinator with the Greater Banging Housing Coalition will distribute city funds to pay a team of five cleaners for the facilities.

Councilors on Monday said the bathroom proposal seemed like a reliable way to partner with local advocacy groups to help the city’s homeless population.

City officials have discontinued portable toilets in the past after damage to the units and altercations with vendor staff, Rindy Fogler, Bangor’s assistant director of public health and community services, said in a Friday memo to the council. Yet Fogler said that the bathrooms seemed appropriate from a public health standpoint.

Monday’s vote came amid a broader discussion over addressing homelessness in the city, a persistent challenge in Bangor, which is a service center that draws people from much of Maine and beyond. The city has had expanded shelter capacity since the local Ramada Inn became a homeless shelter to create more space for homeless residents to socially distance, but the federal funding for that arrangement will run out in September, Fogler said. Last fall, the city counted 140 unsheltered people living in the city, up from 25 to 30 the previous year. Many had set up tents along the Bangor waterfront that the city later cleared.

Councilors on Monday discussed what the city could do to discourage tenting around the city, especially in public areas such as the Bangor waterfront.

A short-term fix to the problem would be to establish points of service throughout the city that could provide or direct homeless residents to services including shelter, health care, food and needle boxes, Fogler said. Yet she said it was important that police prohibit camping along the waterfront and in city parks.

Bangor police Sgt. Wade Betters said there was a significant group of “shelter-resistant” people whom officers frequently encounter.

“Are we ready to issue a trespass notice, to take someone into custody for refusing to leave the waterfront?” Betters asked councilors. “That’s one of the biggest things we need to know.”

All the councilors who spoke said they supported police issuing trespass notices if they needed to and approved police actions to clear tenting in public places such as the waterfront.

“If they’re going to get flack, it shouldn’t be from this council,” Councilor Susan Hawes said of the Bangor police. “It should be from the person that got the trespass order.”

Some who participated in Monday’s meeting to advocate for the bathroom proposal disagreed with how councilors and city officials were framing the homelessness discussion. Seneca Maddocks-Wilbur said that homeless community members’ perspectives needed to be part of the conversation and that compassion was necessary to solve the long-simmering problem.