A coalition of more than 30 organizations that provide medical care, mental health treatment and addiction recovery services wants Bangor-area governments to devote some of the millions they’re receiving in federal relief funds to addressing addiction, homelessness and a lack of mental health treatment.
The coalition sent a letter to Bangor city councilors, Penobscot County commissioners, and Penobscot County’s legislative delegation this week citing a lack of affordable housing and shelter capacity, chronic overcrowding at the Penobscot County Jail, and the disproportionate number of overdose deaths in Penobscot County as the impetus for their appeal.
Penobscot County is expected to receive nearly $30 million under the American Rescue Plan Act that Congress passed in March. That figure dwarfs the county’s most recent annual budget.
In addition, the City of Bangor expects to receive more than $20 million under the package. Other towns and cities in the area will receive smaller amounts.
“Eastern Maine is sadly the epicenter [of the overdose crisis], with Bangor an even more concentrated epicenter, as we are the only service center city for a vast region,” said Sean Faircloth, the executive director of Together Place Peer Run Recovery Center.
A quarter of the state’s 52 suspected or confirmed overdose deaths reported in July were in Penobscot County, making up the single largest percentage of any county in Maine. The proliferation of fentanyl — a synthetic opioid 100 times more potent than heroin that is cut into a growing variety of street drugs — is one factor contributing to the worsening opioid crisis.
Local governments are still in the early stages of deciding how they’ll use their federal COVID-19 relief money. Bangor, for example, has not decided how it will spend its $20.5 million, council chair Dan Tremble said. A Penobscot County commissioner and the county administrator did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
At a Thursday press conference in downtown Bangor, advocates cited a lack of affordable housing, high turnover among support staff at agencies that work with those in need of addiction and mental health treatment, and a lack of capacity at area shelters as some roadblocks facing Bangor-area residents suffering from substance use disorder, mental health crises and homelessness.
There are only 26 public detox beds in Maine, and turnover among personnel at behavioral health services agencies is high, said Suzanne Farley, executive director of Wellspring in Bangor, which provides counseling and housing for people in recovery in the Bangor area.
It also runs a 10-bed detoxification facility in Hampden.
“I had 77 people on my residential waitlist this morning,” Farley said.
She called for more funding so organizations like Wellspring could add more beds and step-down services, which help people returning to the community from treatment obtain the skills and resources necessary to live more independently.
“When we don’t have access to care, we end up sending people as an alternative into expensive institutional settings that are being overutilized, such as hospital emergency departments, hospital inpatient units and correctional facilities,” Farley said.
Calls to mental health help and crisis lines have spiked during the pandemic. Law enforcement officials say their officers have been tasked with locking up people who should be in treatment instead of incarcerated.
Even a fraction of the federal funds headed to Penobscot County could make a difference, Faircloth said, especially if they’re devoted to hiring more outreach specialists who work directly with people suffering from substance use disorder and can make welfare checks.
“We need to reach out and meet people where they are, sometimes in their apartments, sometimes by knocking on doors and saying, ‘We’re here to talk, we’re here to learn what your issues are. Can we help?’” Faircloth said. “We need that investment in these on-the-ground folks to really make a big difference for our community.”
Correction: A previous version of this story misstated one of the groups receiving the coalition’s letter.